Caffeine could help to protect against dementia

Caffeine could help to protect against dementia

Last Updated on April 19, 2017 by Joseph Gut – thasso

March 11, 2017 – This is very good news for a heavy coffee drinker like myself: scientists have identified 24 compounds that increase the brain’s production of the enzyme NMNAT2, which helps prevent the formation of these tangles associated with neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. And yes, one of these compounds is caffeine, of which I consume tons every day. And upon self examination, I would say that  I am not suffering from Alzheimer’s at all, except I have forgotten my 66th birthday a couple of days ago.

 Unqualified joking aside and back to scientific seriousness: the study by Indiana University researchers, just published in the journal Scientific Reports, has identified caffeine, within a set of 24 compounds as having the potential to boost in the brain the enzyme called NMNAT2. NMNAT2 was discovered last year through research conducted at IU Bloomington. Seemingly, NMNAT2 plays two roles in the brain: a protective function to guard neurons from stress and a “chaperone function” to combat

Dementia: disturbing daily life

misfolded proteins called tau, which accumulate in the brain as “plaques” due to aging (see here for a initial review on the many forms of plaques). The study was the first to reveal the “chaperone function” in the enzyme. In relation to dementia, it could be this latter chaperone function  of NMNAT2 that may play a critical role, since misfolded proteins have been linked to neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, as well as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of these disorders, affects over 5.4 million Americans and many millions of patients more worldwide, with numbers expected to rise as populations age.

“This latest 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,” said Hui-Chen Lu, who led the study and is a Gill Professor in the Linda and Jack Gill Center for Biomolecular Science and the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, a part of the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences. To identify substances with the potential to affect the production of the NMNAT2 enzyme in the brain, Lu’s team screened over 1,280 compounds, including existing drugs, using a method developed in her lab. A total of 24 compounds were identified as having potential to increase the production of NMNAT2 in the brain.

One of the substances shown to increase production of the enzyme was caffeine, which also has been shown to improve memory function in mice genetically modified to produce high levels of misfolded tau proteins. Lu’s earlier research found that mice altered to produce misfolded tau also produced lower levels of NMNAT2. To confirm the effect of caffeine, IU researchers administered caffeine to mice modified to produce lower levels of NMNAT2. As a result, the mice began to produce the same levels of the enzyme as normal mice.

Another compound found to strongly boost NMNAT2 production in the brain was rolipram, an “orphaned drug” whose development as an antidepressant was discontinued in clinical development in the mid-1990s, primarily for clinical safety reasons. The compound remains of interest to brain researchers due to several other studies also showing evidence it could reduce the impact of tangled proteins in the brain. Other compounds shown by the study to increase the production of NMNAT2 in the brain, although not as strongly as caffeine or rolipram, were ziprasidone, cantharidin, wortmannin and retinoic acid. The effect of retinoic acid could be significant since the compound derives from vitamin A. At this point in time however, it remains totally unknown if any of these compounds could clinically be “repurposed” for a protective treatment of dementia, taking into account in vivo efficacy and safety issues.

An additional 13 compounds were identified as having potential to lower the production of NMNAT2. Lu said these compounds are also important because understanding their role in the body could lead to new insights into how they may contribute to dementia. “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,” Prof. Lu said.

Journal Reference: Yousuf O. Ali, Gillian Bradley, Hui-Chen Lu. Screening with an NMNAT2-MSD platform identifies small molecules that modulate NMNAT2 levels in cortical neurons. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7: 43846 DOI: 10.1038/srep43846

Referenced from ScienceDaily:  Indiana University. “Caffeine boosts enzyme that could protect against dementia: New analysis reveals 24 compounds that can help reduce impact of harmful proteins in the brain.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 7 March 2017. <>.



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Ph.D.; Professor in Pharmacology and Toxicology. Senior expert in theragenomic and personalized medicine and individualized drug safety. Senior expert in pharmaco- and toxicogenetics. Senior expert in human safety of drugs, chemicals, environmental pollutants, and dietary ingredients.

1 Comment on “Caffeine could help to protect against dementia

  1. Further to the above article, there is ample epidemiological evidence that caffeine in fact has an protective effect towards development of dementia.

    For example, Ira Driscoll et. al. have tested the relationships between caffeine intake and risk for probable dementia or global cognitive impairment in the women’s health initiative memory study (see here:

    They found that women consuming above median levels (mean intake = 261mg) of caffeine intake for this group were less likely to develop incident dementia (hazard ratio = 0.74, 95% confidence interval [0.56, 0.99], p = .04) or any cognitive impairment (hazard ratio = 0.74, confidence interval [0.60, 0.91], p = .005) compared to those consuming below median amounts (mean intake = 64mg) of caffeine for this group, indicating lower odds of probable dementia or cognitive impairment in older women whose caffeine consumption was above median for this group. These findings are consistent with the existing literature showing an inverse association between caffeine intake and age-related cognitive impairment.