A jolt of caffeine may help ease the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, according to the findings of a Canadian study.
Previous research has suggested that people who routinely drink caffeinated drinks – such as coffee and tea – have a lower risk of developing the neurological disorder. But the new study, published in the journal Neurology, represents one of the first attempts to see what happens when Parkinson's patients are treated with caffeine.
The researchers recruited 61 patients. Half of them were given placebos, while the others received increasing amounts of caffeine. The patients given the real thing took a pill containing 100 milligrams of caffeine twice daily for three weeks; then 200 milligrams twice daily for three weeks. The final dose was equivalent to about three cups of coffee a day.
After six weeks, there was a noticeable difference between the two groups: The caffeine consumers had less difficulty moving.
"It is not a huge improvement, but it is real," said the lead author of the study, Ronald Postuma, at the Research Institute of McGill University Medical Centre in Montreal.
Parkinson's disease results from the death of brain cells that produce dopamine, a chemical messenger that plays a role in body movements. As those cells die – and less dopamine is produced – the patients have difficulty initiating movement. Many develop stiffness, trembling and a slow, shuffling walk.
Dr. Postuma speculates that caffeine "increases the efficiency of the dopamine that is still there."
But it's too soon to recommend caffeine as a treatment, he said. Much bigger, and longer, trials are needed.
He noted that several pharmaceutical companies are currently testing experimental drugs that are structurally similar to caffeine. However, he added, it's hard for researchers to raise funds for testing caffeine itself – mainly because caffeine can't be patented and turned into a highly profitable drug.
"You can buy caffeine over the counter [in a drug store]. At the dose we used in our study, it is 10 cents a pill twice a day," he said. "If caffeine was a new product, it would have been aggressively developed and marketed. But, of course, it is not."