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Researchers are looking at compounds in espresso to help combat Alzheimer’s disease. Westend61/Getty Images
  • Espresso compounds may help prevent key protein clumping associated with Alzheimer’s, according to a new discovery from an Italian research team.
  • This research is at the earliest of stages and is a long way from implementation.
  • The data was collected after a lab experiment rather than in a human or animal-based trial.

A new study published this month in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that compounds in espresso may help combat the rise of Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

These researchers, based out of the University of Verona, found that the compounds present in espresso coffee could help inhibit a protein key to Alzheimer’s development.

The study, which was done in a lab and funded by the Italian government, was focused on tau proteins. When proteins start to accumulate or clump into tangles, they have been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

The research involved identifying and isolating tau.

The protein affects function in part of the brain for those with Alzheimer’s and other conditions including Parkinson’s in a group known as tauopathies.

In the experiment researchers added to the same tube both these tau proteins and compounds commonly found in espresso. These compounds include caffeine, coffee extract, and genistein.

They then observed that the tau was prevented from “aggregation” or clumping that can be associated with Alzheimer’s disease after exposure to these compounds.

The researchers theorize that these compounds found in the espresso may be utilized in the future to create treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Rehan Aziz, an associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine who did a large portion of his training in geriatric psychiatry, says that while the study is “interesting” it is far too early for physicians to recommend people switch to espresso to help stave off Alzheimer’s disease.

“We always want the research done in large scale; in multiple labs that’s reproducible before we recommended that people try something like this in large quantities or begin to isolate a compound in coffee that could be helpful,” Aziz, who was not involved in the study, said.

However, Aziz said that the study’s focus on tau makes sense due to how we currently understand the way Alzheimer’s develops.

“There are two problem proteins in Alzheimer’s, one of them is amyloid and the other one is tau,” Aziz said. “A lot of the medications that have been approved in the US by the FDA over the past couple of years helped to break down amyloid, but we don’t have a lot of medicines to help to break down tau. Which is one of the reasons why we still haven’t had a huge amount of success in either preventing or reversing Alzheimer’s once they start.”

Dr. Clifford Segil, neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, said that it’s possible that tau doesn’t have much to do with actual symptoms of dementia, so more reach will be needed to know if these compounds can actually do anything to stop dementia symptoms.

“Unfortunately many modern neuroscientists believe these tau proteins may be more akin to freckles, which are most often normal aging pigments, rather than an accumulation which causes neurological disease,” Segil said. “No medication affecting tau structure [have] shown any clinical benefits to clinical neurologists like me who treat patients with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s dementia or Parkinson’s disease.”

Walter Greenleaf, PhD, a neuroscientist and medical technology developer at Stanford University, said it’s too early to know if coffee compounds, particularly those found in espresso, will help protect your brain.

“It’s a link, we can’t infer causation because of the correlation,” Greenleaf said. “It could be that people who drink a lot of coffee are also people who read a lot of books, and the people who read a lot of books are, that’s what’s protecting them, not the caffeine, right? And so, it’s an association that might indicate a mechanism of action.”

Greenleaf said more research may help us uncover how a lifetime of downing coffee can impact the brain.

“This research study is, again, just one piece of the puzzle that if later, we’re able to do better research and understand with better imaging, better cognitive assessments, and further research, where caffeine might play a role … It could be that what we do now impacts us 20 years later.”

Aziz says that part of the reason studies like these can be so alluring to both researchers and the general public is that coffee is already such a significant part of many people’s lives.

“I think, as a people, we’re always excited to see these studies since we are drinking so much coffee already. So, it’s nice to see that it could have some potential health benefits.”

The researchers are also aware of the social context that their work exists within, writing that part of the reason they chose this subject matter was because of the prevalence of both espresso and Alzheimer’s.

“Due to the increase in the elderly population, the number of patients with tauopathies expected in the future years is very high: this will represent a high socio-economic burden worldwide unless the means to prevent or treat these diseases are found.”

Still, Aziz says that research at these early stages still cannot be relied upon to make sweeping generalizations about health benefits. In part, he says, this is because a test tube is a radically different environment than a human body.

“In an organism, of course, coffee is not going directly into your brain. It’s getting metabolized, it’s getting broken down, its forms are changing. And so it’s unclear if you drink coffee, if it’s going to have the same effect. So, I think that the study is interesting for conversation and as far as other studies [go in the future], but it’s not going to really change our recommendations for preventing Alzheimer’s or what we tell patients regarding their coffee intake.”

A new study published this month found that compounds in espresso may help combat the rise of Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers say more study is needed, but these compounds may someday help lead to new treatments.