by Robert Rooney and Jesse Greenberg*
Named after German physician Alois Alzheimer, Alzheimer’s disease is a terminal brain disorder that gets progressively worse over time. Alzheimer’s deteriorates and destroys brain cells, causing detrimental effects to memory, behavior and one’s thought process. A main characteristic of Alzheimer’s is the extensive development of “plaques and tangles.” Plaques are deposits of the protein beta-amyloid that accumulate in the spaces between nerve cells. Tangles are deposits of the protein tau that accumulate inside of nerve cells. Although most people develop some plaques and tangles over time, those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s tend to have a much larger build up of these proteins. The plaques and tangles are thought to impede interaction between nerve cells and interrupt cell activities necessary for survival.
Scientists are still not sure what exactly causes Alzheimer’s, but current research and evidence point to a few key risk factors. These factors include, but are not limited to, aging, heart disease, head injury, and genetic history. While lack of sleep is not considered a risk factor, recent studies suggest it may play a role.
One study performed by members of the Department of Neurology at Washington University, St. Louis showed that plaque levels increased significantly in mice when they were deprived of sleep. They also found a correlation between beta-amyloid levels and sleeplessness. The research team also studied a group of male volunteers and found similar correlations. They found increased levels of beta-amyloid during the time while the men were awake, with the highest peak level around the evening, but the protein levels decreased when the men slept. Due to the similarities between the results of the mice and the men, the researchers concluded that optimization of sleep time could potentially reduce aggregation of the beta-amyloid protein and slow the progression of AD.
Meanwhile, copper has also been getting a lot of attention from Alzheimer’s researchers. Over the past decade, the role of copper in Alzheimer’s disease has also been extensively explored, yet two conclusions are being drawn which only serve to cloud our understanding. The continuing exploration of the interesting relationship between copper and Alzheimer’s disease will hopefully yield an important breakthrough in the near future.
Two recent studies, one by Exley and another by Jiang, both seem to point to the conclusion that copper reduces plaque build-up in the brain. This plaque is more specifically a clumping of the amyloid beta, a peptide present in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. An earlier study from the Department of Psychiatry at the Saarland University Medical Center found lower levels of copper in post-mortem Alzheimer’s patients. Another study, by Bayer and Multhaup, found a positive correlation between copper levels and scores on an Alzheimer’s specific cognitive processing test. All these data might suggest that there is a relationship between copper deficiency and Alzheimer’s disease, but it is too soon to jump to that conclusion.
While the above studies seem to point to copper as a possible light at the end of the dark tunnel of Alzheimer’s Disease, there is a school of thought among other scientists that claims copper may be the cause of this darkness, not its remedy. The University of Rochester Medical Center’s research team describes how copper damages LRP, or low-density lipoprotein receptor-related protein. LRP seems to be responsible for removing amyloid beta from the brain. If copper damages the LRP molecules, the result is the build up of amyloid beta plaque in the brain. Zlokovic performed a study testing the effects of copper on mice. The results are as follows: After ten weeks, the rats that were given water with copper had twice as much copper in their brains’ blood vessel cells and one third more amyloid beta than that of the control group. A similar study in 2003 on rabbits yielded strikingly similar results.
Until someone can put the pieces of this copper puzzle together, it is too soon to tell whether copper is a help or a hindrance in avoiding Alzheimer’s.
*Editor’s note: This is a combination of two articles written by the two authors. The fault for any awkward transition is mine.
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