Not All Heavy Metal Rocks: High Levels of Copper and Iron May Lead to Alzheimer’s Disease


While experts still pinpoint the accumulation of beta-amyloid (aβ) plaques and tau as key players in Alzheimer’s, new research reveals higher levels of iron and copper also are implicated as potential catalysts. Copper and Iron can act as toxic interruptions to the removal of plaques and tangles in the brain. Controlling levels and intake of copper and iron may help the body remove plaques and tangles more efficiently.

Copper and iron are essential nutrients to keep the body in balance. As with all things, however, the research suggests that moderation is key; excessive levels may lend to the decline of the brain’s natural defense mechanisms against the buildup of plaques and tangles. Copper is a trace element that helps to create red blood cells, and maintain a healthy blood/brain barrier. Iron, in addition to other uses, assists oxygen transport, cell growth, and cell differentiation. Without hemoglobin (protein in red blood cells produced by iron), the body cannot receive enough oxygen to sustain itself.

Imbalanced levels of copper cause serious harm to the brain. Copper accumulates in the linings of the vessels that supply blood, causing interruptions in the brain’s ability to remove beta-amyloid proteins.   Subsequently, the brain cannot remove the aβ proteins before they start to bunch together. With oxidation and time, the ability of the blood/brain barrier to cope with aβ becomes disabled, and plaques form.

Likewise, the human body is unable to process high levels of iron, due to its inability to remove iron proficiently. Excess iron is stored, resulting in toxic buildups in various organs, and the production of free radicals that cause neuronal damage. Furthermore, iron oxidizes, which damages tissues and leads to the development of serious conditions, such as Alzheimer’s. In particular, iron accumulates in areas of the brain responsible for thought processes and memory.

In trials with mice and humans, new research findings suggest the copper interferes with the natural removal of aβ by disrupting the binding process with protein LRP1 (lipoprotein receptor-related protein 1).  Copper builds up in the vessels’ walls, which eventually became more porous, and more copper is allowed through the blood/brain barrier. As a result, the increased level of copper stimulates more production of the aβ protein in the brain. Moreover, new studies suggest that lower levels of iron in the body promote the reduction of plaques and tau proteins in the brain and the relief of Alzheimer’s symptoms in mice.

In proper amounts, iron and copper keep the human body running in peak condition. Excessive amounts of these metals overwhelm the body’s systems, and interfere with normal processes. The researchers stress that the metals accumulate over an extended period of time, and do not suggest a drastic change to daily diets.

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Dr. Lachaka Askew is a doctoral candidate of the Drew University’s Doctor of Medical Humanities program. She holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from South University and a Master of Science in Health Science degree from Cleveland State University. Her foci are Neurodegeneration, Alzheimer’s disease interventions, and designing novel and innovative methods for Alzheimer’s interventions. She successfully defended her novel “3-D” Alzheimer’s Stage 1 Intervention Model during her CSU graduate studies. She hopes to work with leading hospitals to design successful Alzheimer’s interventions, using ministry and the arts.