Something in coffee seems to protect against Alzheimer's disease. Scientists just don't know what it is.

If they did, it might lead to a breakthrough in treatment and prevention of the dreaded disease of aging.

A new Alzheimer's mouse study by researchers at the University of South Florida found that something in coffee interacts with the caffeine to boost blood levels of a critical growth factor that seems to fight off the Alzheimer's disease process.

The findings appear in the early online version of an article to be published June 28 in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

Coffee seems to be special

Using mice bred to develop symptoms mimicking Alzheimer's disease, the USF team presents the first evidence that caffeinated coffee offers protection against the memory-robbing disease that is not possible with other caffeine-containing drinks or decaffeinated coffee.

Previous studies in humans reported that daily coffee/caffeine intake during mid-life and in older age decreases the risk of Alzheimer's disease. The USF researchers' earlier studies in Alzheimer's mice indicated that caffeine was likely the ingredient in coffee that provides this protection because it decreases brain production of the abnormal protein beta-amyloid, which is thought to cause the disease.

The new study doesn't challenge that. Instead, it shows that caffeinated coffee induces an increase in blood levels of a growth factor called GCSF (granulocyte colony stimulating factor). People with Alzheimer's have less GCSF. The substance is has also been demonstrated to improve memory in Alzheimer's mice.

Looking for the reason

A just-completed clinical trial at the USF Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute is investigating GCSF treatment to prevent full-blown Alzheimer's in patients with mild cognitive impairment, a condition preceding the disease. The results of that trial are currently being evaluated and should be known soon.

"Caffeinated coffee provides a natural increase in blood GCSF levels," said USF neuroscientist Dr. Chuanhai Cao, lead author of the study. "The exact way that this occurs is not understood. There is a synergistic interaction between caffeine and some mystery component of coffee that provides this beneficial increase in blood GCSF levels."

The researchers would like to identify this mystery component so that coffee and other beverages could be enriched with it to provide long-term protection against Alzheimer's.