Dementia: Could caffeine help lower risk?

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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Caffeine at high concentrations inhibited toxic protein aggregate formation in the laboratory, suggesting that coffee may help lower dementia risk. Image credit: RyanJLane/Getty Images.
  • A recent study from the University of Verona in Italy asks whether espresso could possibly help reduce the risk of dementia.
  • The preliminary research, which was conducted in vitro, in the laboratory, found an association between higher concentrations of caffeine and the inhibition of tau protein aggregates, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
  • It remains unclear whether drinking coffee could actually keep dementia at bay for longer.

A high concentration of caffeine — which some might associate with drinking an espresso — might help reduce the risk of dementia, according to a study published in the ACS Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

In preliminary in vitro laboratory tests, researchers found that espresso compounds might inhibit tau protein aggregation, a process believed to be involved in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia.

The scientists first pulled espresso shots from store-bought beans. Then, they characterized the chemical makeup and chose several molecules, including caffeine.

The test included the molecules and the complete extract. They were incubated alongside a shortened form of the tau protein for at least 40 hours.

As the caffeine concentration increased, tau fibrils did not form larger sheets, with the complete extract showing the most dramatic results. Ultimately, the fibrils were nontoxic to cells and did not act as seeds for further aggregation.

“This was an interesting study by a group of scientists in Verona, Italy, who are trying to help change espresso coffee use from a potential health risk to a health benefit,” explained Clifford Segil, a board-certified neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, not involved in the study.

Coffee is a source of antioxidants in the form of polyphenols, which has led some researchers to suggest that it can bring various Health benefits including lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer. It may also have beneficial effects on brain Health.

That may be because antioxidants from a person’s diet can help protect against cellular aging. However, antioxidants alone are unlikely to offer full protection against any disease or Health condition.

“Antioxidant substances that claim to be neuroprotective are plentiful,” Segil told MNT, “and in theory, they may actually be Healthy, but claims [that a] coffee brew is going to protect someone from getting a neurodegenerative disease is challenging to agree has scientific merit.”

Nevertheless, the researchers who conducted the current study say that their preliminary in vitro findings could pave the way toward finding or designing other bioactive compounds against neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

Dr. Joel Salinas, a neurologist at NYU Langone Health, not involved in the study, pointed out that this is very early research, and several other areas of investigation need to be explored.

“For example,” he told us, “causation has not yet been established — other studies have shown that drinking coffee [was associated with] an increased risk of dementia.”

“It could be a matter of finding dividing lines — how much coffee is preventative and how much is harmful,” Dr. Salinas hypothesized. “These [questions] must be answered before designing, or attempting to design, treatments for neurodegenerative diseases.”

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