PhotoGood news if you're a heavy coffee drinker. The caffeine in your favorite beverage may be helping your brain fight off dementia.

Researchers at Indiana University (IU) are advancing that theory after a study identified 24 compounds, including caffeine, that appear to boost a brain enzyme that keeps dementia from occurring. The enzyme, NMNAT2, was discovered last year and the account of the findings appear this week in the journal Scientific Reports.

IU professor Hui-Chen Lu, who led the study, said the discovery could lead to development of drugs that boost the enzyme, perhaps creating a preventive treatment against age-related neurological disorders.

Misfolded proteins

The Indiana study was the first to reveal what Lu calls the "chaperone function" in the enzyme, that prevents the misfolding of proteins called tau, which can pile up in the brain as plaques as a person ages.

These misfolded proteins have been linked to brain 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.

Of particular concern to researchers is Alzheimer’s disease, a form of dementia that affects over 5.4 million Americans, and those numbers are expected to rise as the population ages.

The Indiana study is not the first to suggest that caffeine plays a beneficial role in brain health. Last August, researchers from three countries reported their findings that caffeine can combat the effects of age-related memory impairment.

Other research

In this case, the international research team focused on a certain receptor in the brain, called adenosine A2AR, which is linked to memory impairments related to age. Following up on previous research, the researchers say they were able to manipulate this receptor to induce a sort of “early aging” that led to the release of hormones related to stress and memory loss.

To prevent this early aging, the researchers tested a caffeine analogue on animal models. They reported that caffeine blocked the receptor from acting properly, which in turn normalized the memory- and stress-related deficits.

While coffee has had something of a checkered past when it comes to health -- in the 1970s it was thought to cause heart disease -- lately research has emphasized its positive role. Recent health studies have suggested it can reduce risks to colon cancer and multiple sclerosis.

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