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Need more reasons to enjoy your morning coffee? It’s already generally accepted that a daily coffee habit helps protect people from Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Now, a research team from Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, has found more evidence that caffeine helps protect the brain from the types of damage found in dementia patients.
The team, led by Hui-Chen Lu, has been researching neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease, for some time. In 2016, they discovered an enzyme called NMNAT2, which seems to serve two functions in the brain. First, it guards neurons against stress. It was the second function that led to the most current research.
In a healthy brain, a protein called tau helps transport nutrients between areas of the brain. In areas of the brain where plaques form, the tau becomes twisted and entangled. Instead of keeping the delivery chain on track, the damaged tau essentially derails the transport system, making it more difficult for nutrients and other essential “supplies” to get to the brain cells. The starved cells eventually die, resulting in memory loss and dementia. According to Lu, NMNAT2 helps protect tau from deformation, helping maintain normal brain function. Her earlier research showed that mice that had been altered to produce misfolded tau also produced less NMNAT2. The new study was designed to find compounds that might increase the production of NMNAT2 in those mice.
Lu’s team screened more than 1,000 chemical compounds using a method developed in her lab. The compounds tested included some existing drugs, as well as naturally occurring substances. They identified 24 compounds that increased the levels of NMNAT2 produced by the brains of the specialized mice. One of those compounds is caffeine. When the mice were injected with caffeine, they began to produce NMNAT2 at normal levels.
Lu’s research could help explain at least part of the reason that regular coffee drinkers diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases show slower progression of memory-related and cognitive functions. It could also help identify and develop new treatments for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Other research into coffee and Alzheimer’s disease has shown that coffee seems to reduce the amount of inflammation in the brain, boost memory and cognitive function and protects against diabetes, a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Most studies into the effects of coffee on various diseases found that people who drink a moderate amount of coffee – about two to four cups daily – derive the most benefit from the habit. While caffeine is often believed to be the active compound providing the benefit, there are also studies that show people derive similar benefits from drinking decaffeinated coffee. That leads many researchers to believe that other compounds in coffee, which is one of the major sources of antioxidants for many people, also offer protective benefits to regular coffee drinkers.