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Caffeine Could Hold Clues To An Alzheimer's Breakthrough, Study Suggests

But don't start guzzling coffee just yet.

08/03/2017 11:41

Caffeine may boost an enzyme in the brain shown to protect against dementia, according to a new study.

But before you start guzzling coffee like there’s no tomorrow, it’s worth bearing a few things in mind. 

Firstly, the researchers weren’t investigating the impact of coffee itself on the debilitating disease.

Rather, they were – in their own words – looking to “advance efforts to develop drugs that increase levels of this enzyme in the brain”. 

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Secondly, there have been plenty of studies investigating the links between coffee and dementia in the past, but the Alzheimer’s Society claims none distinguish between cause and effect. And the NHS called the results of a recent study on the topic “lukewarm at best”.

Finally, Alzheimer’s Research UK told HuffPost UK doses in the experiments are far higher than is safe for a person to consume in a day.

But none of this detracts from the latest study’s consequences for research into the holy grail of modern medicine – a drug to combat Alzheimer’s.

So what does it actually show?

The researchers found that caffeine, along with 23 other compounds, can boost an enzyme that provides two key roles in the brain.

Firstly, NMNAT2 guards neurons from stress and secondly, provides a “chaperone function” to combat mismfolded proteins of tau, which are believed to be a hallmark of Alzheimer’s and a range of other neurodegenerative disorders, including Parkinson’s, Huntingdon’s and ALS.

To identify the key substances that could boost the activity of NMNAT2, scientists screened more than 1,280 compounds, including existing drugs.

When caffeine was administered to mice with lower levels of the enzyme, production of NMNAT2 shot up to normal levels. 

Critically, caffeine has also been shown to improve memory function in mice genetically modified to produce lots of misfolded tau proteins.

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The study also identified rolipram, a discontinued antidepressant, as a strong boost for the production of the enzyme.

But they weren’t the only important findings. The researchers also found 13 compounds that could lower the production of the enzyme. 

Hui-Chen Lu, a professor of biomolecular science at Indiana University’s Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences, led the study. 

She in a statement: “Increasing our knowledge about the pathways in the brain that appear to naturally cause the decline of this necessary protein is equally as important as identifying compounds that could play a role in future treatment of these debilitating mental disorders.”

It’s important research, but if you’re looking to stave off Alzheimer’s now, it’s worth heeding the NHS’s advice

“As the exact cause of dementia and in particular Alzheimer’s disease is not known, there is no clear way to prevent the condition. There are things you can do that may reduce your risk, such as stopping smoking and reducing alcohol intake, eating a healthy, balanced diet, and staying physically fit and mentally active.”

Dr David Reynold, chief scientific officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK said: 

“When searching for potential new treatments for a condition, screening libraries of existing drugs can be a valuable approach to take. In this new study, the researchers have identified a number of drugs that are able to boost the levels of a protein indicated to be important for nerve cell health, however it is too early to say whether any of these drugs could hold potential as new dementia treatments.

“The researchers identified caffeine as having a positive effect in their study, but the doses they used in their experiments were far higher than is safe for a person to consume in a day. The study does not indicate that the everyday drinking of coffee will provide benefits for people living with dementia. Future studies will need to scrutinise exactly how these drugs are working, as this may reveal new ways to try to tackle the diseases that cause dementia.”

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