Will Coffee Be the Next Alzheimer’s Drug?

July 07, 2009 03:00 PM
by Shannon Firth
Caffeine may help reverse memory problems associated with Alzheimer’s disease, say researchers at the University of Florida. Previous studies have found other health benefits associated with regular coffee consumption.

Caffeine Aids Memory in Mice

Scientists at the University of Florida developed Alzheimer’s-like attributes in 55 mice. When the mice grew to between 18 and 19 months old—the equivalent of 70 human years—researchers confirmed signs that the disease had developed, then separated the mice into test groups, the BBC reported.

One group was given 500 mg of caffeine—the amount found in roughly 5 cups of coffee—in its water daily; the other group was given regular water. Two months later, the group given caffeine tested better on “memory and thinking skill” trials than those given only water. Moreover, the former group’s test results matched those of regular mice their age that did not display dementia symptoms.

The BBC explained, “[T]he brains of the mice given caffeine showed nearly a 50% reduction in levels of the beta amyloid protein, which forms destructive clumps in the brains of dementia patients.”

Scientists found that caffeine actually limits production of two enzymes that form the harmful proteins.

In 2008, researchers conducted a study on rabbits that suggested caffeine might help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s, reported findingDulcinea.

However, as Dr. Gary Arendash from the University of South Florida told the BBC, the new study’s results are significant because actually reversing memory impairment is much harder than preventing the damage.

Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, warned that researchers still need to study caffeine’s effects on humans before any serious claims about using the stimulant as a treatment drug can be made.

Background: Weighing the pros and cons of coffee

The good news…

Beyond the obvious benefits of coffee, such as a brighter mood and sharper awareness, studies have shown drinking coffee may help lower the risk of some diseases.

In 2008, researchers published a longitudinal study of coffee’s impacts on men and women’s health. Women who consumed two to three cups of coffee a day showed a 25 percent lower risk of death from heart disease than women in the study who did not drink coffee. Men showed a similar trend, but the reduction in risk was minor.

In 2007, Reuters reported, “Low to moderate coffee drinkers—defined in some studies as those who drank less than 3 cups per day and in others as less than 1 cup per day—had a 30 percent lower risk of HCC compared to coffee abstainers.” HCC stands for hepatocellular carcinoma, which is the medical term for liver cancer.

U.S. News also cited a review from Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism by Rob M. van Dam, assistant professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard, who reported that “people who drank a lot of coffee had a substantially lower risk of type 2 diabetes.”

However, it’s important not to take research out of context. In people who already have diabetes, as opposed to those who may be at risk, coffee can amplify the “blood sugar response” after a meal, making it harder to maintain proper glucose levels.

For both the liver cancer and diabetes studies, scientists found it hard to determine whether caffeine or some other component of coffee was responsible for the health effects they discovered. U.S. News points out that this is a recurring problem in such studies.

And the bad news…

In 2008, findingDulcinea reported on a study of women undergoing in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment. In a 10-year study of 9,000 women, around one in seven became pregnant naturally, with some 45 percent of that group expecting within six months of their last IVF session. But among the women who drank four or more cups of coffee a day, the likelihood of becoming pregnant fell by 26 percent.

And U.S. News noted that another drawback of coffee is that it could set off a heart attack in people who don’t drink it regularly. When people first begin to drink coffee, their blood sugar increases; however, van Dam said that this effect is “much less pronounced” after a week.

Caffeine addiction can also be a serious problem for some coffee-drinkers. “There’s no question.” Roland R. Griffiths Ph.D., a neuroscience professor at Johns Hopkins University, told WebMD, “Caffeine does produce dependence, and caffeine withdrawal is a real syndrome.”

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