Coffee and Parkinson's Disease

According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, approximately 60,000 Americans are diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease each year, and this number does not reflect the thousands of cases that go undetected.  Additionally, an estimated seven to 10 million people worldwide are living with Parkinson’s disease.  Since April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month, I think it is important for people to learn about the disease and know what they can do to help out.

What is Parkinson’s disease?

A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia states “Parkinson’s disease is a disabling condition of the brain characterized by slowness of movement, shaking, stiffness, and in the later stages, loss of balance.”  Many of these symptoms are due to the loss of certain nerves in the brain, which results in the lack of a chemical called dopamine.

Dopamine is a brain chemical that nerve cells use to help control muscle movement.  Without dopamine, the nerve cells in that part of the brain cannot properly send messages.  This then leads to loss of muscle function and over time the damage just gets worse.  The exact reason of why these brain cells waste away is still unknown.

The disease most often develops after age 50 and is one of the most common nervous system disorders of the elderly.  However, Parkinson’s can also occur in young adults, which is called “Young-Onset Parkinson’s Disease”.  Although it is extremely rare, the disease can develop in children and teenagers.  This form of the disorder is known as “Juvenile Parkinsonism”.

Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease

Symptoms may be mild a first and may affect one or both sides of the body.  They include blinking, constipation, difficulty swallowing, drooling, problems with balance and walking, no expression in the face, muscle aches and pains, rigid or stiff muscles (often begins in the legs), slowed/quieter speech, stooped position, and low blood pressure when getting up, sweating, lack of body temperature control.  Symptoms also include movement problems such as difficulty starting movement, difficulty continuing to move, slowed movements, and loss of small or fine hand movements (writing may become small and difficult to read or eating becomes difficult).  Shaking or tremors are also associated with this disease.  The tremors usually occur in the limbs at rest, or when the arm or leg is held out and goes away when you move.  Eventually these tremors may be seen in the head, lips, tongue, and feet.  Tremors may become worse when tired, excited or stressed.

Treatment

As of right now, there is no known cure for Parkinson’s disease.  The goal of the treatment is to control symptoms.  Medications control the symptoms mostly by increasing the levels of dopamine in the brain.  Eventually symptoms such as stooped posture, frozen movements, and speech difficulties may not respond very well to drug treatment.

Coffee and Parkinson’s Disease

Several studies have shown that caffeine intake is associated with a reduced risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.  However, until recently researchers did not understand the exact relationship between caffeine and the disease.

In recent studies from late 2011, Dr. Haydeh Payami and her research team discovered that “variations in the glutamate-receptor gene GRIN2A modulate the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease in heavy coffee drinkers.”  GRIN2A is a well-known gene that regulates brain signals that control movement and behavior.  Regularly drinking coffee (two to three cups a day) can cut the risk by as much as 25 percent.  However, coffee consumption may not benefit all equally because everyone’s genetic make-up is different, and Parkinson’s disease involves interactions between genetic make-up and environmental exposures that are unique to each individual.

Dr. Payami’s discovery was important because “the knowledge of interaction between GRIN2A, which is involved in neurotransmission in the brain, and caffeine, which is an adenosine-A2A-receptor antagonist, will stimulate new research towards understanding the cause and progression of Parkinson’s disease.”  It is also important because results may lead to personalized prevention and treatment of the disorder.

The Honolulu Heart Program has also been examining the relationship between coffee intake and the incidence of Parkinson’s disease.  Researchers studied 8,004 men over a 30-year period.  Of these men, 102 developed Parkinson’s disease.  Men who drank coffee had a significantly lower incidence rate of Parkinson’s disease than non-coffee drinkers.  In fact, men who did not drink coffee were five times more likely to show symptoms of the disorder as shown below.

This research group pointed out that caffeine belongs to the xanthine chemical group.  A naturally occurring xanthine in the brain is adenosine, which is used as a neurotransmitter at some synapses.  “When adenosine receptors are blocked, levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine increase.  Caffeine may protect against Parkinson’s disease by blocking adenosine receptors, thus increasing the amount of dopamine in the brain.”

Conclusion

Researchers are getting closer and closer to finding a way of how to prevent and treat Parkinson’s disease.  Caffeine consumption may be the answer, but more studies need to be conducted in order to know for sure.

To learn more about Parkinson’s disease and/or make a donation to bring change, please go here.

Ashley