The researchers said this is the first time that trace metals have been confirmed in human brain tissue, which may help in better understanding how they contribute to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Although minerals can occur naturally in the body and are essential for health, they are usually stored as compounds in an oxidized form.
The scientists, led by experts at Keele University, found copper and iron nanoparticles about 1/10000 the size of a pinhead in the brains of two deceased people with Alzheimer’s disease.
The discovery was made in ‘plaques’ containing harmful proteins known as amyloid, which are linked to Alzheimer’s disease and often accumulate in the spaces between nerve cells.
Metals are found in “chemically reduced states”, including various ionization (where an atom or molecule acquires a negative or positive charge) and elemental forms.
Mineral imbalances have previously been linked to the development of dementia and neurodegenerative diseases, but one of the study’s authors said there was “absolutely no reason to believe that daily exposure to these minerals could cause them to be present in the brain”.
“In fact, it is not yet clear whether these particles are actually linked to disease,” Neil Teeling, professor of biomedical nanophysics at Keele University, told PA.
At the very least, its presence suggests that there is a lot to learn about the way minerals are processed in the brain.”
Teeling said the discovery of the elemental metals was “unexpected”, but added: “It will take more time and additional research before that (results) may affect treatments for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.”
For example, by answering persistent questions about how minerals interact with the amyloid proteins, which make up the plaques.
Ultimately, this line of research could lead to new treatments targeting minerals as well as amyloid proteins currently under study.
The researchers said that this discovery could facilitate “the development of new therapies to restore the mineral balance in diseased brains, which may slow or prevent the development of these currently incurable diseases.”
Scientists have identified copper and iron in the human brain using intense X-rays, at facilities in California and Harwell, Oxfordshire.
And earlier this year, scientists identified brain cells most susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease for the first time, in what has been called the “holy grail” of dementia studies.
The Keele University study was published in the journal Science Advances.