Coffee could prevent Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases

Neurodegenerative disorders afflict millions of Americans and pose a significant burden with costs reaching hundreds of billions of dollars

Neurodegenerative disorders afflict millions of Americans and pose a significant societal and economic burden with costs reaching hundreds of billions of dollars annually. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

Neurodegenerative disorders, which afflict millions of individuals across the United States, pose a significant societal and economic burden, with costs reaching hundreds of billions of dollars annually, as reported by the Alzheimer's Association.

However, a groundbreaking discovery by researchers from The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) suggests a promising avenue for tackling these devastating conditions through an unlikely source – used coffee grounds.

The research team, led by Jyotish Kumar, a dedicated doctoral student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UTEP, and overseen by Mahesh Narayan, Ph.D., a distinguished professor and Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry within the same department, has unveiled a potential game-changer in the fight against neurodegenerative diseases.

A team led by Jyotish Kumar (right), a doctoral student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UTEP, and overseen by Mahesh Narayan, Ph.D. (second from left), a professor and Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry in the same department, found that caffeic-acid based Carbon Quantum Dots (CACQDs), which can be derived from spent coffee grounds, have the potential to protect brain cells from the damage caused by several neurodegenerative diseases. The team includes Afroz Karim (left), a doctoral student in the Department of Chemistry; and Ummy Habiba Sweety (second from right), a doctoral student in the Environmental Science and Engineering program. (CREDIT: UTEP)

Their work centers around caffeic-acid based Carbon Quantum Dots (CACQDs), derived from discarded coffee grounds, which may offer protection to brain cells against the damage triggered by various factors including obesity, aging, and exposure to toxic environmental chemicals. The team's findings are documented in a paper published in the journal Environmental Research.

"Caffeic-acid based Carbon Quantum Dots have the potential to be transformative in the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders," asserts Kumar, emphasizing the critical distinction that their approach aims to find a cure rather than merely manage symptoms. "Our aim is to find a cure by addressing the atomic and molecular underpinnings that drive these conditions."

Neurodegenerative diseases are characterized primarily by the progressive loss of neurons or brain cells. This debilitating process impairs fundamental functions such as movement, speech, as well as more intricate tasks like bladder and bowel control and cognitive abilities.

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In their early stages, when influenced by lifestyle and environmental factors, these disorders exhibit shared characteristics.

Among them, elevated levels of free radicals—harmful molecules known to contribute to various other ailments such as cancer, heart disease, and vision loss—in the brain, and the accumulation of fragments of amyloid-forming proteins that can lead to the formation of plaques or fibrils within the brain.

In their extensive investigations, Kumar and his team discovered that CACQDs exhibited neuroprotective properties across a spectrum of experiments, including test tube studies, cell line models, and other representations of Parkinson's disease induced by the pesticide paraquat.

Notably, CACQDs demonstrated the ability to neutralize or prevent the damage caused by free radicals, while also inhibiting the aggregation of amyloid protein fragments without inducing significant side effects.

The researchers speculate that in the early stages of conditions like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's in humans, CACQD-based treatments could effectively prevent the progression of the disease.

"It is critical to address these disorders before they reach the clinical stage," stresses Narayan. "At that point, it is likely too late. Any current treatments that can address advanced symptoms of neurodegenerative disease are simply beyond the means of most people. Our aim is to come up with a solution that can prevent most cases of these conditions at a cost that is manageable for as many patients as possible."

Caffeic acid, a compound within the polyphenol family, is a notable player in this breakthrough. Polyphenols, found in plants, are renowned for their antioxidant properties, particularly their ability to scavenge free radicals.

Caffeic acid, however, possesses a unique characteristic—it can penetrate the blood-brain barrier, thereby exerting its effects on brain cells, elucidates Narayan.

The methodology employed by the team to extract CACQDs from used coffee grounds aligns with the principles of "green chemistry," characterized by its eco-friendliness. Within their laboratory, coffee grounds are "cooked" at 200 degrees for four hours, a process that restructures the carbon arrangement of caffeic acid, leading to the formation of CACQDs.

The sheer abundance of coffee grounds makes this process both economically viable and sustainable, according to Narayan.

Significant support for this groundbreaking research came from a grant provided by the National Institutes of Health.

Alongside Kumar, a cohort of graduate and undergraduate UTEP students contributed to the project, including Sofia Delgado, a former undergraduate student at UTEP who has since embarked on her Ph.D. journey at Yale University. Dr. Hemen Sarma, currently serving as Associate Professor and Head of the Botany Department at Bodoland University, also collaborated on this project.

With promising results in hand, the researchers are now seeking additional funding to support further testing and development of this groundbreaking approach.

While acknowledging that the finish line remains distant, Narayan and Kumar are resolute in their pursuit of a solution—a medication, possibly in pill form—that could prevent the vast majority of neurodegenerative disorders originating from factors other than genetics.

Their journey offers a glimmer of hope for those affected by these debilitating conditions, promising a future where coffee grounds might hold the key to prevention and improved quality of life.

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.

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Joseph Shavit
Joseph ShavitSpace, Technology and Medical News Writer
Joseph Shavit is the head science news writer with a passion for communicating complex scientific discoveries to a broad audience. With a strong background in both science, business, product management, media leadership and entrepreneurship, Joseph possesses the unique ability to bridge the gap between business and technology, making intricate scientific concepts accessible and engaging to readers of all backgrounds.