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Last week I asked the question whether caffeine really gives us the mental edge. Sadly the evidence appeared to say no, the caffeine in our coffee makes us more alert, but makes no difference to our mental performance. Rats.

This week I came across another study from the University of Bristol (my old instant coffee stomping ground) published in the Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.
(Try saying that three times quickly.) This reported that those of us who drink 3-5 cups of coffee a day will develop a tolerance to the stimulatory and anxiety provoking effects of the caffeine. By continuing to drink coffee, all we are doing is merely reversing the effects of caffeine withdrawal.

Given our global love affair with coffee, are there then any benefits from enjoying our caffeine? The short answer is yes.

Scientists are now starting to evaluate the effects of caffeine in the brain in relation to memory and its neuroprotective effects against Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and Parkinson’s.

A special supplement of 22 articles was produced in the May edition of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease called “Looking at therapeutic opportunities for caffeine in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.” A. De Mendonca from the University of Portugal and R. A. Cunha from the University of Coimbra, Portugal provided a summary of the key findings from these articles:

• Caffeine has multiple beneficial effects assisting to normalise brain function and prevent neurodegeneration.
• Caffeine has been shown to reduce beta amyloid production and is neuroprotective.
• Caffeine may be looked at further as a potential disease-modifying agent for Alzheimer’s disease.
• There have been studies showing improved memory performance and cognition in 65yr old women who drink three or more cups of coffee a day. The U.S study showed how coffee by it’s influence on increased neuronal firing, leads to increased short-term memory skills and reaction times.
• The adenosine A2A receptors have been identified as the main target of neuroprotection afforded by drinking coffee.
• Meta-analysis of the available studies has confirmed the data available.
• Epidemiological studies corroborated by Meta-analyses suggest caffeine may have some protective effect against Parkinson’s disease.
• There are a number of methodological issues in study design that will need to be resolved prior to clinical trials being commenced.

In other words, the caffeine in our coffee is looking to be a promising means of protecting our brain from cognitive decline as we get older.

A study published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation in 2008, looked at the protective effect of caffeine in rabbits, where it helped to maintain or stabilise the blood-brain barrier against the damaging effects of high cholesterol. The study showed that the equivalent of caffeine from one cup of coffee would help protect the blood-brain barrier from damage associated with consuming a high fat diet.
And lastly, a study from Finland in 2009 found that people drinking moderate amounts of coffee (3-5 cups a day) showed a lower risk of dementia compared to those who drank either no coffee, or only 1-2 cups a day.

So this is good news for all you coffee drinkers out there who may have been feeling slightly depressed from last week’s blog topic. Now you can feel much more virtuous, knowing that in fact your caffeine fix may be helping to protect your brain from neurodegenerative and cognitive decline. Which isn’t a bad thing. We shall have to wait for more clinical studies to see whether caffeine proves to be a viable therapeutic agent in the future. But it all looks very encouraging so far.

In essence we can drink and enjoy our coffee in the knowledge that:

1. It will make us more alert, though drinking more than several cups regularly each day will lead to caffeine addiction and increasing fatigue.
2 The caffeine itself has no perceived benefits to our everyday performance.
3. Caffeine does appear to have a neuroprotective effect, which may in the future be demonstrated to be a useful, readily available therapeutic tool in the management of dementia and other neurodegenerative disorders.

Meanwhile I am looking forward to enjoying my next cup of really good coffee.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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