A biweekly publication for faculty and staff

Professor Studies Copper's Link to Alzheimer’s Disease

October 20, 2014

Professor Masashi Kitazawa wants to figure out if any environmental factors increase the risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease  specifically, whether elevated levels of copper in drinking water play a role.

A new $2.6 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences will fund his research, making what was a side project into a full-blown exploration.

“Copper is an essential metal, but too much will cause problems,” Kitazawa said. “I want to see if the environmentally relevant levels of copper in drinking water will have any impacts on the brain and its functions.”

The EPA sets a limit of 1.3 parts per million of copper per liter of drinking water. In some places, older copper plumbing pipes can be a source of higher levels of copper in water, for example. But water in Merced is well below the EPA’s limit, Kitazawa said.

He hopes five years will be enough time to conduct all the experiments he wants to perform with a research colleague at Tufts University, and analyze all the data. The researchers are looking at two different brain cells to see how copper affects them, and their results could add to the growing body of data about the neurodegenerative disease.

One of the main markers for the disease, which affects an estimated 5.2 million Americans, is the presence of amyloid-beta deposits in the brain. They are leftovers of proteins and polypeptides that everyone has in their brains. In most people, certain cells act as the body’s or brain’s garbage collectors and get rid of “junk”  broken links of protein chains  that shouldn’t be there. But in some people, they don’t function like they are supposed to.

The accumulation of amyloid-beta is believed to be an initial cause of Alzheimer’s.

“We want to find out whether copper accelerates the accumulation or affects the ability of those cells to clean amyloid-beta from the brain,” Kitazawa said. It’s not known what role environmental factors play in Alzheimer’s, though there are indications that certain things reduce risk, including exercise, healthy eating and stimulating brain activity like reading, playing chess and being bilingual, among others.

“Exposure to some metals, or elevated levels, can significantly impact human health,” Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Sam Traina said. “Professor Kitazawa’s work on a potential linkage between excessive copper exposure and Alzheimer’s is extremely important.”

The grant will support efforts to examine at least one environmental factor at UC Merced and Tufts. Kitazawa’s lab has two postdoctoral researchers, two graduate students and six undergraduate students. Kitazawa, with the School of Natural Sciences, came to UC Merced in 2012 from UC Irvine, where he had been a postdoctoral researcher.

His background is in toxicology, so he has always been interested in how toxins affect the body and brain, and the chemical interactions of toxins and cells. But his examination of copper levels had never earned him funding before, so he could never specifically focus on the project.

“This is a major milestone for me,” Kitazawa said. “I’m very excited to continue research elucidating the environmental impacts on the development and onset of Alzheimer’s disease.”