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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

The effect of copper on Alzheimer’s disease has been the focus of a number of studies. Research had been conducted on the effects of various metals on Alzheimer’s for many years, but studies of how copper might affect the disease are more recent.

Early studies on the relation between Alzheimer’s and copper involved mice. Some of these studies suggested a link while others showed no connection. In 2003, two studies found that higher copper levels in mice produced positive results. The mice had fewer plaques – a build-up of deposits in the brain associated with progression of Alzheimer’s. A 2002 study by Harvard Medical School suggests that metals such as copper and zinc may turn plaques into rogue enzymes, producing hydrogen peroxide to damage brain cells.

A ground-breaking study was conducted in 2003. The Sun Health Institute, Arizona, and West Virginia University were conducting research into the effects of a high cholesterol diet on Alzheimer’s and how fat accelerated the growth of plaques in the brains of rabbits. But the researchers noticed that rabbits who drank pure water did better than those who drank water with traces of copper. A separate study was carried out where one group of the cholesterol-fed rabbits was given tap water which contained copper and the other group drank distilled water. The amount of copper was less than the level considered safe for human consumption.

After ten weeks, rabbits who received tap water had a greater build-up of plaques in their brains than those rabbits that drank distilled water. The group drinking tap water also fared worse in memory tests compared with the other group. Researchers blew a puff of air into the rabbits’ eyes following a noise. Rabbits normally learn to close their eyes on hearing the noise but the study group didn’t remember to do this. What the researchers found was that the copper inhibited the breakdown of plaques from the brains of these rabbits. The distribution of the plaques in the rabbits’ brains was found to be similar to that of people with Alzheimer’s. Previous research into links between Alzheimer’s and copper had been less clear.

The Saarland University Medical Center in Germany conducted a clinical trial to assess the effects of copper orotate (an organic salt) on seventy people with Alzheimer’s in 2005. Half the patients were given eight milligrams of copper orotate a day and the rest a placebo (or fake). Each patient didn’t know if they were on copper orotate or in the control group. The study found that patients with low plasma copper levels in their blood made more mistakes in a memory test than patients with higher levels. Further the copper orotate was found to be well tolerated by patients.

Other researchers have found that an imbalance of metals such as copper, iron and zinc may cause a build-up of brain plaques linked to Alzheimer’s. If older people have a high cholesterol diet, copper may cause deterioration in memory, thinking and learning, and lead to accelerated onset of Alzheimer’s. The Institute for Healthy Aging at Rush University Medical Center measured trans and saturated fats and copper consumption levels of about 3,700 older Chicago residents over a period of six years to 2006. Copper was only found to be associated with cognitive decline in people who consumed high levels of fat. Within this group, the more copper they consumed, the greater the rate of cognitive decline.

In 2007, the University of Rochester Medical Center found that mice who drank water with 0.12 milligrams of copper per liter had twice the copper in their brains than mice that drank distilled water. The mice drinking the copper water also had a third fewer low density LRPs (lipoprotein receptor-related proteins) and a third more plaques in their brains. In human cells, copper was found to cause sufficient damage to these proteins and they no longer worked to reduce the build-up of the beta amyloids. Everyone has plaques, and they increase with age. Alzheimer’s accelerates the build-up. Eventually these plaques kill brain cells, a previous finding of the study team.

A study at Keele University, UK in 2013 found that copper is unlikely to cause the formation of plaques in the brain. The research found that copper was potentially protective against beta amyloid build-up.

Thus some research links low copper levels with Alzheimer’s and other research links high levels with it. No studies have found that copper causes the disease, and more research would need to be done before such a conclusion could be made. There is also a need to know more about how copper breaks down LRPs.

It should be pointed out that copper is a natural component of various foods. Liver and shellfish have the highest levels of copper. Other foods high in copper include red meat, legumes, grains, potatoes, nuts, seeds, many vegetables and fruits, and chocolate. Indeed, a certain level of copper is necessary for good health. People need it for sturdy bones, energy, healthy blood, and a strong immune system. Also, water via copper pipes can contain trace amounts of copper.