Researchers have identified 24 compounds, including caffeine, that showed potential in boosting levels of a brain enzyme exhibiting protective benefits against dementia.

For a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers from Indiana University screened more than 1,280 compounds to identify which substances could influence production of NMNAT2. The brain enzyme's protective effect was discovered just last year.

"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," said study lead, Hui-Chen Lu.

How NMNAT2 Works

Lu and colleagues saw that NMNAT2 played two roles: first, as a protector guarding neurons from stress, and second, as a "chaperone" fighting against misfolded tau proteins. These proteins accumulate in the brain and form plaque as an individual ages.

Plaque buildup has been associated with neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's, Huntington's, and Alzheimer's diseases, as well as Lou Gehrig's disease and amyotropic lateral sclerosis or ALS. In the United States, it is estimated that the most common of these diseases, Alzheimer's, affects more than 5.4 million Americans, and this number is expected to spike as aging sets in for the current population.

Caffeine And Other Compounds Against Dementia

Aside from increasing NMNAT2 production, caffeine was also shown to improve memory function for mice that have been genetically altered to create large amounts of misfolded tau proteins. In an earlier study, researchers found that genetically modified mice that produce misfolded tau in high levels also produce NMNAT2 in low levels.

To confirm caffeine's effects, Lu and colleagues administered the substance to the modified mice. Eventually, the modified mice started producing NMNAT2 at the same level as normal mice.

Joining caffeine as one of the compounds that can greatly boost production of NMNAT2 is rolipram. The drug was originally developed in the mid-1990s as an antidepressant and has been observed in several studies to reduce the effects of tangled brain proteins.

The researchers also singled out retinoic acid, wortmannin, cantharidin, and ziprasidone as compounds with positive effects on the brain enzyme although not as strong as caffeine and rolipram.

Other Potential Targets For Dementia Treatment

Lu and colleagues also identified 13 other compounds that work by lowering NMNAT2 production. The researchers said it was also important to better understand these compounds because they contribute to how dementia develops.

The study received funding support from the Belfer Family Foundation and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and included work as well from Yousuf Ali and Gillian Bradley.

Other Reasons To Drink Coffee

In another study, researchers found that consuming caffeine alongside cocoa can not only boost attention but ease anxiety as well. When study subjects carried out tasks that allowed the researchers to assess for mood and cognitive ability, they found that those given cocoa and caffeine showed sustained attention. The researchers said this makes the combination of cocoa and caffeine ideal for students and those looking to improve their focus.

The study was sponsored by the Hershey Company so its results may pave the way for improved or new products hitting the market.

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