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VAI Voice

The Official Blog of Van Andel Institute
up-close photo of coffee beans
2 Oct 2017

But first, coffee: How caffeine may combat Parkinson’s

For many of us, the day doesn’t start until we’ve downed at least one cup of joe.

But what if our morning routine could do something more?

In honor of National Coffee Day last week and International Coffee Day yesterday, we’re taking a look at how one of the world’s favorite (and let’s be honest, most necessary) beverages may have implications for reducing risk for Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological condition that affects seven to 10 million people worldwide.

Crossed signals
Research has shown that coffee-drinkers have a 30 percent lower chance of developing Parkinson’s than those who don’t drink coffee.

The reason? Caffeine may actually protect vulnerable brain cells from the damage caused by the disease.

That may be because caffeine shuts down a molecule called A2A, which is found in the part of the brain most affected by Parkinson’s. This region is also rich with cells that produce dopamine, a chemical messenger that helps control voluntary movement. It’s the loss of these cells that leads to Parkinson’s hallmark symptoms, including tremor and freezing.

A2A also plays a role in regulating glutamate, another chemical messenger that has long been linked to Parkinson’s. When brain cells are functioning normally, glutamate isn’t a problem (in fact, it’s an important player in the brain’s intricate communication network). However, when something goes wrong with cells’ ability to produce energy, they become highly susceptible to glutamate and can sustain damage.

A gut feeling
The reduction in risk could also be the result of caffeine’s effect on the gut, which is home to a cornucopia of microbes that aid in digestion.

Increasing evidence suggests that Parkinson’s, a disease usually associated with the brain, actually may begin as the result of inflammation in the digestive tract, which causes proteins called alpha-synuclein to stick together. These proteins eventually make their way into the nervous system and into the brain, where they wreak havoc on dopamine-producing cells. Caffeine, however, may change the composition of the gut’s microbes, known as microbiota, in a way that reduces inflammation and prevents alpha-synuclein from becoming harmful.

The takeaway
When it comes down to it, what does this all mean?

Many studies have shown that caffeine is associated with a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease. However, it’s important to remember that the majority of Parkinson’s cases do not have one easily identifiable cause, and are likely the result of a mix of factors including genetics, epigenetics and environmental exposures (with caffeine consumption being a protective factor).

So, the next time you have a cup of coffee, remember—it may be doing it bit more than you expected.