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Researchers are finding there are even more benefits in your morning cup of coffee, 

Caffeine was one of 24 compounds recently identified by an Indiana University study as having the potential to boost an enzyme in the brain shown to protect against dementia.

The enzyme—NMNAT2—was discovered last year through research conducted at IU Bloomington.

In previous research Lu and colleagues discovered that the enzyme provides a protective function to guard neurons from stress and a “chaperone function” to combat misfolded proteins called tau, which accumulate in the brain as “plaques” due to aging. Misfolding proteins have been linked to several neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, as well as ALS.

For the current study the researchers identified substances with the potential to affect the production of the NMNAT2 enzyme in the brain after screening over 1,280 compounds, including existing drugs, using a method developed in Lu’s lab.

Caffeine was shown to increase production of the enzyme in the brain, while also showing to improve the memory function in mice genetically modified to produce high levels of misfolded tau proteins.

In the experiments, the researchers administered caffeine to mice modified to produce lower levels of NMNAT2. The mice began to produce the same levels of the enzyme as normal mice.

“This work could help advance efforts to develop drugs that increase levels of this enzyme in the brain, creating a chemical 'blockade' against the debilitating effects of neurodegenerative disorders,” Hui-Chen Lu, who led the study, said in a statement.

Another compound found to strongly produce enzyme production in the brain was rolipram—an “orphaned drug” whose development as an anti-depressant was discontinued in the mid-1990’s.

The compound remains of interest to brain researchers because previous research showed evidence it could help reduce the impact of tangled proteins in the brain.

An additional 13 compounds were identified as having potential to lower the production of NMNAT2.

According to Lu, these compounds are also important because understanding their role in the body could lead to new insights into how they may contribute to dementia.

“Increasing our knowledge about the pathways in the brain that appear to naturally cause the decline of this necessary protein is equally as important as identifying compounds that could play a role in future treatment of these debilitating mental disorders,” Lu said.   

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