Coffee, broccoli and cinnamon are among the common foods that scientists are investigating in search of new treatments for Alzheimer's disease. All three contain ingredients that showed promise in fighting the effects of Alzheimer's on the brain. But the results of the tests, done in laboratory animals, are preliminary. Much more research needs to be done to find effective treatments that will slow, or even cure, the mind ravaging effects of Alzheimer's.
In one experiment, researchers at the University of South Florida studied mice that had been specially bred to develop a disease that resembles Alzheimer's in people. Mice that drank the equivalent of five cups a day of caffeinated coffee had increased levels of a brain growth factor called GCSF, for granulocyte colony stimulating factor. The substance is known to boost memory potential in animals, and people with Alzheimer's have low levels of GCSF, which is thought to keep the brain and memory functioning normally.
"Caffeinated coffee provides a natural increase in blood GCSF levels," said neuroscientist Dr. Chuanhai Cao, lead author of the study. "The exact way that this occurs is not understood. There is a synergistic interaction between caffeine and some mystery component of coffee that provides this beneficial increase in blood GCSF levels." In other words, the researchers don’t attribute the beneficial effects to caffeine alone but rather to an unknown compound present in the coffee, in combination with caffeine.
Other studies have suggested that coffee may have benefits for the brain. A report from 2009 from Scandinavian researchers found that middle-aged men and women who drank three to five cups of coffee a day were less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease in old age than those who didn't drink coffee or drank very little. A 2007 study from France found that women age 65 and older who drank more than three cups of coffee, or an equivalent amount of caffeine-rich tea, scored better on tests that measure thinking and memory skills than women who drank a cup or less of coffee or tea a day.
In another experiment, researchers at the Dundee University in Scotland are undertaking a two-year study of sulforaphane, a chemical derived from broccoli and other vegetables. Some preliminary research suggests the ingredient may help to ward off dementia in old age. They are providing the substance to Alzheimer's-prone mice to see if it slows, or halts, the development of the disease.
Israeli scientists are studying a third kitchen staple, cinnamon, to see if the spice may have benefits in protecting the brain. Cinnamon bark contains a substance called CEppt that, preliminary results in test tubes showed, inhibit the buildup of toxic proteins like beta-amyloid that clog the brain of those with Alzheimer's disease. The extract was also effective in breaking up toxic proteins that had already formed.
Additional research in fruit flies and mice showed that the cinnamon extract may have potential benefits against Alzheimer's. The fruit flies had been bred to make the beta-amyloid protein, and feeding them the cinnamon extract made them live longer and apparently healthier lives. The mice, also bred to develop Alzheimer's, were fed the cinnamon extract for four months and showed similar benefits without suffering any notable adverse effects. But, the researchers note, if people ate an equivalent amount of cinnamon daily, the levels would be toxic. The findings were published in the journal PLoS One.
The research underlines the importance of finding new, more effective treatments for Alzheimer's disease. Currently available drugs for Alzheimer's may ease symptoms but do not stop the downward progression of the disease. Scientists are looking at hundreds of potential substances that may ease symptoms or even cure the disease.
It also highlights the possible importance of eating a rich and varied diet. Other studies suggest that the Mediterranean diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, may be good for brain health. And other spices like curcumin, found in Indian food, have been linked to possible brain benefits.
Age remains the most important risk factor for Alzheimer's: The older you are, the more likely you are to develop the disease. Smoking, high blood pressure, years of schooling, and genetics may also contribute to risk, other research has shown.
* As always, please consult with your physician before making drastic changes to your diet.
Sources: Chuanhai Cao, Li Wang, Xiaoyang Lin, et al: "Caffeine Synergizes with Another Coffee Component to Increase Plasma GCSF: Linkage to Cognitive Benefits in Alzheimer's Mice." Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 25(2), June 28, 2011.