Study: Java May Help Ease The Jitters in Parkinson's Patients

As few as two cups of coffee a day can improve motor skills in Parkinson's patients, a new study suggests.

Coffee and biscotti on cafe table
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Earlier this year, a large-scale study found that coffee drinkers live longer than those who don't imbibe in daily lattes. Now a new study has found the caffeine in a cup of coffee might be as effective as some drugs at treating certain symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

While a cup of Joe might make most of us feel jittery, it has the opposite effect on people suffering from Parkinson's disease. Researchers found caffeine can temporarily improve motor function in people suffering from the disease, according to a randomized, placebo-based trial published in the journal Neurology on Wednesday.

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"It's not like we get with the best medications to treat Parkinson's, but [caffeine's] effects seem to be as good as some of the less powerful drugs," says lead researcher Ronald Postuma, of McGill University in Montreal.

Parkinson's disease is a degenerative nervous system disorder that affects as many as 60,000 new patients in the United States each year and is associated with unintended shaking, balance trouble, and energy problems. According to the Centers for Disease Control, it's the 14th leading cause of death in the United States.

In the study, 30 Parkinson's sufferers took between 100 and 200 milligrams of caffeine twice daily—between two and four cups of coffee's worth. Postuma expected the caffeine to help treat another common Parkinson's symptom: daytime sleepiness. While caffeine users in the test experienced a small increase in alertness, it wasn't statistically significant over participants who received a placebo. Instead, caffeine users experienced a "real, if not dramatic" improvement in their motor skills.

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Postuma suggests that a Parkinson's sufferer might be able to use caffeine, in addition to prescription drugs, as a pick-me-up as needed.

Previous studies have found that lifelong coffee drinkers are about 25 percent less likely to get Parkinson's disease as non drinkers, but caffeine's potential as a Parkinson's treatment hasn't been extensively studied. Postuma says because of caffeine's inexpensiveness and ease of use, it could be an alternative to prescription drugs for people with mild symptoms. But the low cost also makes it difficult to fund more extensive studies, because "no drug company wants to spend money to fund a study about a drink," he says.

Although early results are promising, the study lasted only six weeks. Postuma fears that people who use caffeine to treat their Parkinson's will become tolerant of the drug, so the effects could potentially be short-lived. In a previous study, Parkinson's sufferers who used higher doses of caffeine reported insomnia and restlessness.

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"Six weeks is just too short to know anything for sure," he says. "Our results are certainly promising—but the million dollar question is 'How long does this effect last?' It might be that as people get used to it, they'll need more caffeine to see an improvement."

In an accompanying editorial, Harvard professor Michael Schwarzchild wrote that the findings are the "first to suggest [the] antiparkinsonian effects of caffeine," and that the findings are exciting because of the "unmatchable advantages of caffeine's long-term safety experience and cost," over new prescription drugs.

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com.