Health & Medicine

Integrative Medicine: Copper and Alzheimer’s

Perhaps you’ve heard about a recent report identifying copper as a possible contributor to Alzheimer's disease: In a study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Rochester found that mice who were given trace amounts of dietary copper in their water over a three-month period were unable to clear abnormal levels of toxic amyloid protein from their brain.

Copper may also cause inflammation in the brain, and both of these mechanisms likely contribute to the risk of dementia. The scientists also studied human brain cells and found similar changes. The amount of copper given to the mice in these studies was small – only a tenth of the water quality standards set by the EPA. The authors speculate that copper may be a key environmental trigger that initiates Alzheimer’s and enhances its progression. While copper is an essential mineral for human health, assisting with normal bone growth, nerve conduction, and hormone production, in excess it can cause harm to the brain and may also promote the spread of cancer.

Copper is widespread in our food supply; red meat, shellfish, nuts, and many fruits and vegetables contain copper. Copper is also found in our drinking water if that water has been carried in copper pipes. In addition, many nutritional supplements contain copper, including multivitamins.

So what should you do to avoid excess exposure to copper? Try to get copper from your food alone, and avoid other exposures when possible.And read the labels of all of your supplements, especially multivitamins, and be sure to avoid those with copper.

What about other interventions to help lower your risk of Alzheimer’s? Regular exercise, mentally and socially stimulating activities, adequate sleep, stress management and an anti-inflammatory diet all contribute to keeping your brain in tip-top shape. In addition, people with the highest intake and highest blood levels of B vitamins, especially folate and B12, seem to have a lower risk of dementia, though giving B vitamins to patients with Alzheimer’s does not seem to help once dementia has set in.

What about supplements to help the brain for people with cognitive impairment or dementia? There are several on the market now that are very intriguing, and many more that are being studied for their possible benefit in dementia. Here are some that hold promise:

• Alpha-GPC is a precursor to acetylcholine, one of the most important neurotransmitters for memory and cognition. Some human studies suggest that alpha-GPC can significantly improve cognitive function in patients with AD, especially after three to six months of treatment. The dose used in studies is 600 mg twice daily with food.

• Acetyl-L-carnitine is similar to acetylcholine. Studies suggest that it may delay progression of dementia and improve memory and behavior, especially in patients under the age of 66. The dose is 1,500-4,000 mg per day in 2-3 divided doses. It can cause side effects including nausea, vomiting, depression and agitation, so discuss with your doctor before taking this.

•  Phosphatidylserine is a fatlike molecule that seems to improve cognition and behavior, though the benefits may not last more than four months. The dose is 100 mg three times daily.

• Vitamin E seems to help reduce inflammation in the brain and may help to slow cognitive decline in people with moderately severe AD; it may also delay the need for nursing home care. The dose is1,000 to 2,000 units per day

•  Coconut oil may interfere with the build-up of amyloid plaque in the brain, but it may only work for AD patients who carry the ApoE4 genetic marker.

•  Vinpocetine seems to help with circulation in the brain and may also reduce inflammation. The dose is 5-10 mg 3 times daily. Vinpocetine can interact with blood thinners.

• Some studies have shown that 60-120 mg of ginkgo given twice-daily can modestly improve cognitive function in people with established dementia; it does not seem to preventdementia however. Ginkgo can also interact with blood thinners.