(Bloomberg) — For clues to treatments for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, scientists are looking at their morning cup of joe.
What they’ve found is that caffeine, the world’s most widely used drug, does more than wake people up. It’s been linked to improvements in memory and appears to protect against the destruction of brain cells.
Emboldened by these findings, some companies have been designing drugs to replicate those benefits. The most advanced research has been in Parkinson’s.
At least one drugmaker, Kyowa Hakko Kirin Co., won Japanese approval last year for such a product and then began U.S. tests. The challenge is to go beyond the buzz of a vanilla latte to achieve a more powerful effect on the brain — without side effects like headaches, irritability and jitters.
“Caffeine has a major benefit for cognition,” said Jiang- Fan Chen, a professor of neurology and pharmacology at the Boston University School of Medicine. “More and more people believe this is a real serious potential benefit that we should explore.”
Caffeine, found naturally in more than 60 plants, enters the brain quickly once consumed. There, it latches onto cells at the same sites that interact with adenosine, a chemical that acts as a braking system on the brain. By blocking those sites and thwarting adenosine, it creates the jolt of clarity that makes coffee one of the world’s most popular beverages.
At least five large studies have shown that consuming more caffeine can help reduce the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, said Chen, who co-wrote a research review with Fredholm last year. In one rat study, chronic consumption of caffeine prevented the loss of nerve cells.
One study found that people who drank two or more cups of coffee a day had a 40 percent lower risk of developing Parkinson’s.
One study published in Nature Neuroscience this year found that a dose of at least 200 milligrams of caffeine — the amount in about two cups of coffee — enhanced people’s ability to convert short-term memories into long-term ones. A 2007 study found drinking coffee may help mentally healthy women retain word-retrieval skills.
“One reason we need to develop a drug rather than use caffeine, which can be taken so cheaply, is that we need an effect that is larger than that which can be obtained with caffeine, without the side effects,” said Bertil Fredholm, a Swedish researcher who has studied caffeine’s effects for more than 40 years, in a Skype interview.
Using information about the effects of caffeine to create a prescription medicine hasn’t been easy.