Caffeine is not really bad despite its reputation. According to a new study done by Indiana University, little doses of caffeine can protect the brain against several degenerative neurological disorders like dementia by boosting the production of an essential enzyme. There have been previous studies done that have tried to connect coffee consumption with reduced risk of dementia, but this is first of its kind to focus more on neurological reasons.
The researchers found that the essential enzyme, known as NMNAT2, works towards combatting certain proteins that can act as plaques in the brain as we age and can lead to cognitive defects and neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's diseases and ALS (aka Lou Gehrig's disease). NMNAT2 also protects neurons from stress, thus preventing damage. To fully understand the production of the enzyme, the researchers tried to identify specific compounds that either increase or decrease the enzyme in the brain. They screening over 1,280 compounds, and identified 24 substances that boosted the production of the NMNAT2 enzyme as well as noting an additional 13 compounds that had the potential to lower the enzyme's production.
The two most significant compounds noted in their research as boosting NMNAT2 enzyme production were caffeine and rolipram, which was earlier used in an antidepressant medicine in the mid-1990s. The researchers also administered caffeine into modified mice with lower capability of producing the enzyme, and found that the production increased to the same amount as that found in normal mice.
"This work could help advance efforts to develop drugs that increase levels of this enzyme in the brain, creating a chemical 'blockade' against the debilitating effects of neurodegenerative disorders," reported Professor Hui-Chen Lu, one of the lead authors of the study.
Several observational studies in recent years have noted a correlation between moderate coffee consumption and lower instances of dementia, but there have been notable inconsistencies in the results. By drilling down into what the specific triggers are that produce this protective enzyme in the brain, researchers hope to gain better insights into the processes behind degenerative neurological disorders.
"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," Professor Lu explains.
The team's research was published in the journal Scientific Reports.