New Delhi, Aug. 20: Two Indian scientists in the US have helped implicate copper as a key element that drives the changes in the brain linked to Alzheimer’s disease, an incurable neuro-degenerative disorder whose genesis remains a mystery.
Their research at the University of Rochester Medical Centre suggests that slow accumulation of copper may accelerate the production of a toxic protein linked to Alzheimer’s disease and disrupt the natural biological process that eliminates it.
While scientists have earlier speculated about a possible role of copper in Alzheimer’s disease, the new research study by Itender Singh and Abhay Sagare and their colleagues for the first time provides insights into the molecular mechanisms that link copper to Alzheimer’s disease.
Their study’s findings have been published in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“We think that excess copper can cause Alzheimer’s disease,” said Rashid Deane, research professor at the Rochester’s department of neurosurgery who designed and led the study based on experiments on laboratory mice.
Copper is ubiquitous in food supply — it is found in drinking water carried by copper pipes, nutritional supplements and in several foods, including red meat, nuts, and many fruits and vegetables. It plays a key role in nerve functions, bone growth and hormone secretion.
The findings suggest that the intake of even low levels of copper over a long period of time could contribute to the accumulation of a toxic amyloid beta protein which has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
They also found that relatively low levels of copper — only 10 per cent of the maximum permissible limit in drinking water set by the US Environmental Protection Agency — caused a decrease in the elimination of amyloid beta protein from the brain.
Copper, Deane told The Telegraph through email, damages a transporter protein that ferries amyloid beta protein from the brain to the blood for elimination. The study showed that copper also causes inflammation of the brain.
“We’ll need more studies to validate these findings and understand the process better,” said Singh, who graduated from Rohtak, Haryana, and obtained a PhD from Delhi before moving to the US for post-doctoral research.
The scientists point out that copper is an essential metal for normal body functions, but are hoping that their findings could be used to design new strategies to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Our findings suggest that the controlled removal of copper and reducing the inflammation in the brain might help fight Alzheimer’s disease,” said Singh, who examined the molecular mechanisms underlying the accumulation of the amyloid beta protein in the brain.
Sagare, the other Indian-origin scientist in the team had obtained a PhD from the National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, and is currently a research assistant professor at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.