UNCG Research

How caffeine combats Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s

Undergrad John McCormick seeks answers

Posted on Monday, November 3rd, 2014 by UNCG Research.

15516417780_8ef4374885_o (1)Your caffeine habits may help prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. UNCG biology student John McCormick thinks he knows why.

McCormick is an undergraduate researcher in UNCG professor Zhenquan Jia’s molecular toxicology lab. Dr. Jia and his students look at natural compounds that cause and inhibit damage at the cellular level. “We try and find the molecular mechanisms for toxic and antitoxic effects,” McCormick explains. When McCormick and Jia learned that people who consume more coffee are less likely to develop Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, they decided to dig down to the cellular level for answers.

Previous studies have found that many people with neurodegenerative diseases have high concentrations of a molecule called peroxynitrite in their neural cells. Peroxynitrite is a damaging free radical, or oxidant, produced during respiration. Most people eliminate peroxynitrite through normal antioxidant processes. While scientists don’t yet know what causes higher peroxynitrite levels in people with neurodegenerative diseases, they believe those higher levels may be causing the neural cell damage that characterizes the diseases.

If peroxynitrite is the culprit, McCormick and Jia wondered, could caffeine be preventing peroxynitrite damage from happening, thus delaying or preventing the onset of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s?

caffeinefactBased on his in vitro experiments, McCormick says yes. His results showed that peroxynitrite significantly damages cell DNA, altering the DNA from its normal supercoiled configuration to open circular and linear forms. Such changes would cause cell damage and death, which supports the hypothesis that peroxynitrite levels in neural cells contribute to the neurodegeneration characteristic of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Next, McCormick demonstrated that caffeine specifically inhibits the peroxynitrite-induced DNA damage. The findings are strong evidence that caffeine acts as an antioxidant, scavenging peroxynitrite molecules before they can damage DNA.

This semester, McCormick will begin the process of publishing his exciting results. But the UNCG senior is not resting there. He plans to strengthen his findings by repeating his studies in actual neural cells, and he will dig deeper into the reasons behind his results. “We want to find the actual mechanism,” he explains. “So right now I’m doing research to find out how caffeine might be scavenging peroxynitrite and its byproducts.”

In light of McCormick’s findings, students in Jia’s lab are also assessing other natural antioxidants, like resveratrol from red wine and lipoflavonoids from beans, to see if they have similar inhibitory effects on peroxynitrite-induced DNA damage. Their encouraging preliminary results may point the way to novel treatments for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

McCormick’s passion for research is rooted in his personal history. McCormick originally attended Virginia Tech as a film and biology major, but a struggle with leukemia forced him to drop out his junior year. His own life-saving bone marrow transplant sparked his interest in research and even led him to work in a bone marrow transplant lab. “I came to love transplant research,” John says. “The research involved determining the chemicals that cells are using to communicate with each other.”

15081889513_84d59500bc_oWhen McCormick enrolled at UNCG to finally finish his degree, he knew he wanted to continue doing laboratory research. “I liked Dr. Jia’s lab because it’s a molecular toxicology lab, and his work was similar to my interests in signaling and immunology. But I also liked that his projects involved natural compounds.” Dr. Zhenquan Jia has a background in Chinese remedies. Much of his research involves translating traditional processes and techniques into the language, method, and tradition of science. “Often, we know that things are good for us, but we don’t know why. In Jia’s lab, we look at the chemical mechanisms by which these compounds protect our cells.”

When the future med student graduates from UNCG in 2015, he will be walking away with much more than a degree. He will have already made original contributions to his field.

Article by Peter Hess
Photography by Mary McLean


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face1 copyArticle author Peter Hess is an Environmental Studies intern working with the UNCG Office of Research and Economic Development. His writing focuses on the important research being conducted by members of the UNCG community. Peter is an environmental studies student in his senior year at UNCG. His passion for communicating science to the public led to his current position.


  • Lane Simonian

    Thank you for your research. You are very likely exactly on the right track.

    I am an environmental historian who has been studying peroxynitrites and peroxynitrite scavengers in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease for about ten years in order to try to help family members with the disease.

    Peroxynitrites cause DNA damage, mitochondrial dysfunction, and neuronal cell death. They also inhibit the synthesis, release, and transport of neurotransmitters involved in short-term memory, sleep, mood, alertness, and social recognition, and they prevent the regeneration of neurons in the hippocampus.

    The key to treating Alzheimer’s disease (and likely a series of other neurodegenerative disease) is to find the most effective peroxynitrite scavengers. Among the most effective peroxynitrite scavengers are methoxyphenols such as eugenol (in various essential oils via aromatherapy), ferulic acid, syringic acid, sinapic acid, curcumin, and vanillin. The methoxy group donates electrons and the phenol group or groups donate electrons: ONOO- + 2H+ + 2e-=NO2- + H20. Hydrogen donation partially reverses oxidation and water is a de-nitrating agent. The combined effect is the partially reversal of damage done to receptors, transport systems, and enzymes and other proteins responsible for short-term memory and behavior.

    The following are studies using methoxyphenols and similar compounds for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease:

    Eugenol in rosemary essential oil and geraniol in lemon essential oil for cognition and linalool in orange and lavender essential oils for relaxation via aromatherapy.

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1479-8301.2009.00299.x/full

    Eugenol and ferulic acid in a lemon balm extract.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1738567/

    Ferulic acid, syringic acid, vanillic acid, p-coumaric acid, and maltol in panax ginseng.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3659550/

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22780999

    Using aromatherapy with essential oils high in eugenol (such as rosemary, clove, and bay laurel), my mother began to sleep better at night, had a better sense of place (such as being able to recognize her home and some times when we were getting close to it), a better sense of time, stopped having delusions, was much more verbal (and a bit more lucid), and was much better connected to people and her surroundings.

    Here has been my mantra for several years now: everything that increases the risk for Alzheimer’s disease increases the formation of peroxynitrites, everything that reduces the risk for Alzheimer’s disease reduces the formation of peroxynitrites, high levels of peroxynitrites are responsible directly or indirectly for all aspects of the disease, and the most effective peroxynitrite scavengers have effectively treated the disease in small-scale clinical trials. It is just a matter of time to discover which of these scavengers (and in what combinations) can be used to most effectively treat Alzheimer’s disease.