Understanding how the brain processes copper during Alzheimer's disease, using brain scans

Read about a research project we funded into how the brain processes copper during Alzheimer's disease.

Lead investigator: Professor Philip Blower
Institution: King’s College London
Grant type: PhD
Start Date: 01/10/2012
Completion Date: 31/12/2015 
Duration: 36 months
Amount: £75,000

Scientific title: PET Imaging changes in copper metabolism associated with Alzheimer’s disease: potential new diagnostics

What was the project, and what did the researchers do?

Many researchers are interested in how detailed images of the brain can improve diagnosis and treatment for people living with dementia. Brain imaging studies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) take pictures of the brain that highlight patterns of particular substances that could be signs of disease. Studying these patterns helps researchers to find out what changes are associated with conditions such as dementia. This study built on previous attempts to look at levels of the Alzheimer's hallmark amyloid protein in the brain using PET scans to provide early diagnoses. 

There is evidence that there could be an association between Alzheimer's disease and levels of metals such as copper in different parts of the brain. Some studies have suggested that drugs that cause copper to be transported inside cells in the brain improve some signs of Alzheimer's, including reducing amyloid levels and improving cognition. Very little is currently known about why or how copper levels may be affected by Alzheimer’s, or how these changes may play a role in progression of Alzheimer's.

In this study, researchers scanned the brains of people with and without Alzheimer's using PET scans to see whether patterns of copper in the brain were different.   

What were the key results, and how will this help in the fight against dementia?

The PET scans suggested that copper was transported differently in the brain in people with Alzheimer's disease. This result indicates that PET scans of copper distribution in the brain could be used to develop new diagnostic tests. It could also be used in further study to look at how and why copper levels in some brains change, illuminating underlying causes of Alzheimer's

What happened next? Future work and additional grants

The researchers are currently applying for further funding to continue this research in a clinical setting.

How were people told about the results? Conferences and publications


Baguña Torres J, Andreozzi EM, Dunn JT, Siddique M, Szanda I, Howlett DR, Sunassee K, Blower PJ. PET Imaging of Copper Trafficking in a Mouse Model of Alzheimer’s Disease. J Nucl Med 2015;56:in press.

Presentations and conferences

The PhD student on this grant has organised public understanding activities including the London Pint of Science in which this work was part of the discussion.

Prof Blower has presented this work as part of invited presentations at conferences, universities and a Royal Society of Chemistry Public lecture (June 2016 – Is radioactivity good for you?)

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