In 1819 when German analytical chemist Friedrich Ferdinand Runge was hard at work in his lab on the way to becoming the first person to isolate caffeine from coffee, he likely thought nothing of the Ethiopians who first cultivated the plant. He also likely gave little thought to the 15th century Sufist monks who cultivated and brewed coffee as a medicinal. He did, no doubt, have in mind how coffee had already become a ubiquitous breakfast beverage in much of the world.
Making this new discovery, Runge and his good friend Goethe were no doubt as excited as researchers publishing in the recent special issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease focused entirely on the effects of caffeine on neurologic diseases.The special issue is filled with articles and research digging into the brain chemistry of caffeine. It also includes several meaty studies on the impacts of caffeine consumptions and disease as well as review articles that aggregate previous studies. The editors didn’t limit the finding to just Alzheimer’s disease (AD) either. The high points are as follows.
- Caffeine shortens the resting period needed to respond to stimuli both in the motor cortex and in fatigued tissue meaning caffeine makes the brain faster to respond.
- While caffeine doesn’t directly improve cognition its indirect action on arousal, mood and concentration contributes in large part to its cognitive enhancing properties.
- In AD, caffeine alleviates memory dysfunction. Caffeine also affords beneficial effects in conditions expected to impair memory performance such as Parkinson’s disease, chronic stress, type 2 diabetes, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder, early life convulsions, or alcohol-induced amnesia.
- Moderate caffeine intake (the human equivalent of 500 mg caffeine or 5 cups of coffee per day) can protect against or treat AD in a mouse model for the disease and shows therapeutic potential against AD in humans.
- Coffee drinking may be associated with a decreased risk of dementia/AD. Unfortunately the same is not clearly associated with tea drinking.
- In Parkinson’s disease, caffeine intake showed improvement in both motor symptoms (tremors) and non-motor symptoms making caffeine one of the first interventions examined for Parkinson’s that impacts both.
- Caffeine consumption was associated with a lower risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.
Caffeine has been part of the human diet for hundreds of years and no shortage of interesting ways to consume it have been invented. Whether it’s caffeinated soap, caffeinated lip balm, super caffeinated soda, or just good old fashioned coffee and tea, caffeine is easy to get and most likely beneficial to brain functioning. This special issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease shows that clearly and specifically shows that plain old coffee may be the best possible source. Just remember when you drive-through at Starbucks that most of the beverages are glorified milkshakes and stick to drip, light cream and no sugar.