The link between copper protein molecules in the brain and Alzheimer’s diseases is being studied by a chemist at the University of Houston.

Many people may think of copper as the metal used in the wiring and the electronics inside telephones and other electrical equipment. It is actually also a mineral found mostly in the liver, brain, heart, kidneys, and skeletal muscles that the body requires to maintain good health.

"Scientists have studied Alzheimer's disease for 100 years and still no one knows the cause," said assistant professor of chemistry Tai-Yen Chen, who will use his $1.9 million award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to advance his theory that the balance of copper protein within a single cell may be a culprit.

As an essential brain nutrient, it helps neurons communicate with each other. Healthy cells normally control copper amounts to keep them at a proper level. However, people with Alzheimer’s experience high levels of copper in the beta-amyloid plaques that are a signature of the disease. These plaques are simply an accumulation of insoluble proteins between the brain’s neurons.

“It was an unusual finding, and we want to know more about it,” said Chen, who will examine the biological regulation of copper to identify potential causes of diseases marked by abnormal amounts of copper in cells. Copper imbalances are associated with several diseases such as Menkes disease, a nervous system disorder marked by low levels of copper; and Wilson disease, a genetic disorder in which too much copper is present.

Little is known about how these metalloproteins are individually regulated or how they cooperate in their native environment: living cells.

"We want to figure out how cells regulate or manipulate the copper inside them to maintain the optimum copper level," said Chen, who will examine individual neuron and liver cells. "We will use a unique method, studying a single cell to examine its behavior, then repeat it on many of them to get information from the collective behavior."

pans-419249_1920 With iron and zinc, copper makes up the trio of minerals essential to our well-being. Copper is vital to our health from foetal development right through to old age. Photo: Pixabay

The study will provide insights into the mechanisms of metalloprotein-mediated copper uptake and secretion processes and copper distribution. To ensure his research outcomes will provide valuable insight into human health, Chen is using stem cells to recreate human neuron and liver cells with both normal copper levels and with copper deficiency.

"If we can figure out how copper regulation is different between normal and diseased cells, it will shed light on understanding the pathology of Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative diseases," he said.

Chen is the first University of Houston researcher to receive the Maximizing Investigators Research Award from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.