New research shows that caffeine may inspire an entirely new class of drugs for Alzheimer’s disease, adding a new preventive strategy against the disorder that experts say will affect 130 million people worldwide by 2050.

Dr. Christa Muller, a researcher at the University of Bonn in Germany and co-author of the new study, said in press release that the findings show that adenosine receptor antagonists like caffeine can have a positive effect on so-called tau deposits — a key characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. These protein buildups disrupt communications of nerve cells in the brain, leading to the neurological symptoms typically associated with the disorder.

Building on the antagonizing properties observed in caffeine, Muller and colleagues developed a new antagonist tailored to block a receptor subtype called A2A. "We have taken a good step forward," Muller explained. "The results of the study are truly promising, since we were able to show for the first time that A2A adenosine receptor antagonists actually have very positive effects in an animal model simulating hallmark characteristics and progression of the disease.”

To investigate, the researchers designed an experiment with mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease. Each subject had an altered tau protein that in the absence of therapy leads to the development of the disorder. Over several weeks, some mice received the caffeine-based A2A antagonist, and the rest were given a placebo.

The findings, which are published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging, show that animals treated with the caffeine compound experience a significant reduction in symptoms associated with the disease. For example, the treatment group performed significantly better on spatial memory tests than the control. These subjects also exhibited reduced disease processes within the hippocampus — the memory center in rodent brains.

Alzheimer’s Disease and Caffeine

Alzheimer’s disease currently affects 44 million people worldwide — a figure that is expected to triple over the next four decades. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the disorder is characterized by gradual neurodegeneration — a process whereby nerve connections in the brain are gradually eroded. Neurodegenerative disorders typically result in a range of debilitating cognitive impairments, including confusion, disorientation, loss of motor skills, and memory loss. In turn, these symptoms generally bring with them a number of lifestyle changes as well as an increased risk of injuries.

The next step, according to the researchers, is a clinical study with human participants. That said, it may take some time before a finalized version of the treatment can be developed. "Patience is required until A2A adenosine receptor antagonists are approved as new therapeutic agents for Alzheimer's disease,” she said. “But I am optimistic that clinical studies will be performed."

Source: Laurent C, Eddarkaoui S, Muller CE, et al. Beneficial effects of caffeine in a transgenic model of Alzheimer’s disease-like Tau pathology. Neurobiology of Aging. 2014.