Good to the Last Drop

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Krembil researchers identify a compound in coffee that might help protect brain function.
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Approximately 500 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide each year.

A new study from the Krembil Research Institute suggests that there could be more to coffee than a boost in energy and attention. It may also protect you against developing Alzheimer and Parkinson disease.  

"Coffee consumption does seem to have some correlation to a decreased risk of developing Alzheimer disease and Parkinson disease," says Dr. Donald Weaver, Krembil Research Director.

"But we wanted to investigate why that is – which compounds are involved and how they may impact age-related cognitive decline."

Dr. Weaver enlisted Dr. Ross Mancini, a research fellow in medicinal chemistry, and Yanfei Wang, a lab technician, to help. The team chose to investigate three different types of coffee – light roast, dark roast, and decaffeinated dark roast.  

"The caffeinated and de-caffeinated dark roast had identical potencies in our initial experimental tests," says Dr. Mancini. "So we observed early on that its protective effect could not be due to caffeine."

Dr. Mancini then identified a group of compounds known as phenylindanes, which emerge as a result of the roasting process of coffee beans. Phenylindanes are unique in that they are the only compound investigated in the study that prevent beta amyloid and tau, two protein fragments common in Alzheimer and Parkinson disease, from clumping.

As roasting leads to higher quantities of phenylindanes, dark roasted coffee appears to be more protective than light roasted coffee.  

"It's the first time anybody has investigated how phenylindanes interact with the proteins that are responsible for Alzheimer and Parkinson disease," says Dr. Mancini. "The next step would be to investigate how beneficial these compounds are, and whether they have the ability to enter the bloodstream, or cross the blood-brain barrier."

The fact that it's a natural compound versus synthetic is also a major advantage, says Dr. Weaver.

"Mother Nature is a much better chemist than we are. If you have a complicated compound, it's easier to grow it in a crop, harvest the crop, grind the crop out and extract it than try to make it."

But, he admits, there is much more research needed before these findings can be translated into potential therapeutic options.  

"What this study does is demonstrate that there are indeed components within coffee that may ward off cognitive decline. It's interesting but are we suggesting that coffee is a cure? Absolutely not."   

This work was supported by the Krembil Foundation and the Toronto General & Western Hospital Foundation. D Weaver is a Tier I Canada Research Chair in Protein Misfolding Diseases.

Mancini RS, Wang Y, Weaver DF. Phenylindanes in Brewed Coffee Inhibit Amyloid-Beta and Tau Aggregation. Front Neurosci. 2018 Oct 12;12:735. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2018.00735.