As well as looking for new drugs to treat dementia once the symptoms have arisen, experts are also keen to establish which elements of a person’s lifestyle can help shield them from the condition. The latest of these to come under scrutiny is coffee.
New research has found that caffeine can help to protect against the effects of dementia, which can be debilitating. The reason for this is all to do with an enzyme called NMNAT2, which when boosted, can protect the neurons in the brain and fight against proteins that have been misfolded.
Dementia is a worldwide problem, with some 47.5 million people being affected by it today. By the year 2050, experts believe this figure will have risen to 115.4 million. As caffeine is a substance consumed regularly by most adults, the latest results are encouraging.
The research builds on previous findings that showed the enzyme has two key roles in the brain. The first is to protect the guard neurons from stress that can damage them and the second is to target misfolded proteins in the brain called tau.
It is these tau that can build-up as people age and lead to serious neurodegenerative diseases. Among the disorders that have been linked to are Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases.
The study was carried out by scientists at Indiana University Bloomington and looked at more than 1,280 compounds. A total of 24 of these compounds, with caffeine among them, proved to increase the production of NMNAT2 in the brain.
Professor Hui-Chen Lu, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University and lead author of the study, spoke about the importance of the work. She is hopeful that is could help to develop drugs to block the effects of dementia and other disorders.
She added: “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.”
Caffeine has long been known as a stimulant, but this study and others looking into its effect on other areas of the brain, show it has many benefits. So, while scientists explore the ways in which it could be rolled out as a drug, it seems sensible to keep having that morning coffee.