June 29, 2011 at 9:05 AM ET
For years we’ve been told that caffeinated coffee was bad for us. It’s unhealthy and addictive, doctors warned. But as vindication for all who stuck by their energizing elixir, a new study shows that guzzling caffeinated coffee may actually be good for our brains. In fact, it may help keep Alzheimer’s at bay.
The study, which was published early online in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, was in mice whose DNA had been tweaked to contain a human Alzheimer’s gene. Just like humans with familial Alzheimer’s, these mice become increasingly forgetful as they age.
Amazingly, the equivalent of four to five cups of caffeinated coffee every few days led to much improved memories in the Alzheimer’s mice, says study co-author Gary Arendash, a scientist at the Florida Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in Tampa.
Earlier research by Arendash and his colleagues showed that caffeine could at least partially block the production of beta amyloid, the sticky protein that clogs the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. They also found that a substance called granulocyte-colony stimulating factor, or GCSF, sparked the production of new axons, the communication cables that link nerve cells together, as well as new nerve cells themselves.
What’s really interesting is that caffeinated coffee -- but not decaf -- boosted the production of GCSF.
For the new study, Arendash and his colleagues “treated” healthy mice and Alzheimer’s mice with either caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee. Then the researchers ran a test to see if either beverage led to better memories.
The test they used mimics one that is given to humans to diagnose Alzheimer’s. In that test, people are given a bag of objects to look through (we’ll call that Bag A). And then they’re shown another bag of objects (Bag B). Later on, they’re asked to remember what was in Bag A.
Studies have shown that people with Alzheimer’s have a tough time remembering what was in Bag A because the distraction of looking through the objects from Bag B gets in the way of storing the contents of A in their long term memories. That’s generally not a problem for people with healthy brains.
The two part mouse test involved water mazes. The mice has to find -- and remember -- the location of a submerged platform in a tub of water that is deep enough that they need to swim till they find the platform.
After they find the platform in one tub, they’re moved to another tub where they have to find yet another platform. Mice with Alzheimer’s generally have a tough time remembering the location of the first platform when they’re placed in the original tub. But in Arendash’s study, Alzheimer’s mice that got caffeinated coffee had memories that were just as good as those of normal mice.
Lest you dismiss this study because it’s just in rodents, Arendash says he’s got new data in humans. That data is still being analyzed, he says, but so far it looks like caffeinated coffee has the same impact in people as it does in mice.