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Coffee grounds could help prevent neurodegenerative diseases

A discovery by researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso could potentially transform the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s. 

The breakthrough centers around the use of caffeic-acid based Carbon Quantum Dots (CACQDs), derived from spent coffee grounds, which have the potential to protect brain cells from damage caused by these diseases.

The study was led by doctoral student Jyotish Kumar and overseen by Professor Mahesh Narayan, a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Neurodegenerative disorders 

The experts found that CACQDs could be key in addressing the root causes of neurodegenerative disorders. Their findings highlight the neuroprotective properties of CACQDs, particularly against damages triggered by obesity, aging, and exposure to environmental toxins like pesticides.

Neurodegenerative diseases are characterized by the progressive loss of neurons, impacting essential functions like movement, speech, and cognitive abilities. 

Early stages of these diseases, often linked to lifestyle and environmental factors, show elevated levels of harmful free radicals and the aggregation of amyloid protein fragments in the brain, leading to further complications.

Transformative treatment

“Caffeic-acid based Carbon Quantum Dots have the potential to be transformative in the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders,” said Kumar. “This is because none of the current treatments resolve the diseases; they only help manage the symptoms. Our aim is to find a cure by addressing the atomic and molecular underpinnings that drive these conditions.”

The team demonstrated that CACQDs, especially in models of Parkinson’s disease induced by a pesticide called paraquat, could remove or neutralize free radicals and prevent the aggregation of amyloid proteins without significant side effects. 

Early intervention 

The researchers believe that early intervention with CACQD-based treatments could effectively prevent the full onset of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. 

“It is critical to address these disorders before they reach the clinical stage,” said Professor 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.”

Protecting brain cells

Caffeic acid, a polyphenol known for its antioxidant properties, is crucial in this discovery. Professor Narayan noted that caffeic acid is unique because it can penetrate the blood-brain barrier and is thus able to directly exert its effects upon the cells inside the brain.

The team employed a “green chemistry” method to extract CACQDs from used coffee grounds, making the process both environmentally friendly and cost-effective, given the abundant availability of coffee grounds.

Further research is needed

Supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, the project has involved numerous graduate and undergraduate students from UTEP, including Sofia Delgado, who is now pursuing her PhD at Yale University.

Despite the progress, Narayan and Kumar acknowledge that there’s still a considerable journey ahead. Their ultimate goal is to develop a medication, possibly in pill form, that could prevent the majority of neurodegenerative disorders not caused by genetics. 

The team is now seeking additional funding to support further testing.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Research.  

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