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Used Coffee Harbors New Compounds for Treating Brain Diseases

Coffee mug with coffee beans.
Credit: Mike Kenneally/Unsplash
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The future of Alzheimer’s research may lie at the bottom of your coffee mug, according to a new paper published in Environmental Research.

The authors of the study say 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, as long as the condition was triggered by factors such as obesity, age or exposure to pesticides.

Coffee stimulates the brain

Neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, are characterized by the loss of neurons in the brain. This neuronal loss can inhibit a person’s ability to perform basic functions such as walking and speaking, as well as more complicated cognitive tasks.

When in their early stages, the disorders – at least the ones strongly associated with lifestyle or environmental factors – share several traits, such as elevated levels of free radicals in the brain and the aggregation of fragments of amyloid-forming proteins that can lead to plaques.

In their study, researchers from the University of Texas at El Paso found that, across test tube experiments, cell lines and other models of Parkinson’s disease (where the disorder was caused by a pesticide called paraquat), CACQDs were able to remove free radicals or prevent them from causing damage. They also inhibited the aggregation of amyloid protein fragments without causing any significant side effects.

What are caffeic acids?

Caffeic acids belong to a family of compounds called polyphenols, which are plant-based compounds known for their free radical-scavenging properties. Crucially, say the El Paso researchers, CACQDs can penetrate the blood–brain barrier and affect the cells inside the brain.  

To get their caffeic acids, the team cooked samples of coffee grounds at 230 °C for 4 hours to reorient the caffeic acid’s carbon structure into CACQDs.

Based on the results of their study, the El Paso team hypothesize an early treatment based on CACQDs could be effective in preventing full-on disease.

“It is critical to address these disorders before they reach the clinical stage,” says Mahesh Narayan, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Texas at El Paso and co-author of the paper. “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.”

Narayan and his colleagues were funded by a grant from the US National Institutes of Health. They are now seeking additional funding to support further testing.

Reference: Kumar J, Delgado SA, Sarma H, Narayan M. Caffeic acid recarbonization: A green chemistry, sustainable carbon nano material platform to intervene in neurodegeneration induced by emerging contaminants. Enviro. Res. 2023. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2023.116932

This is a rework of a press release published by the University of Texas at El Paso. Material has been edited for length and content.