Can drinking coffee protect against MS?

I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t start the day without a nice, strong cup o’ joe (or two). Some interesting new findings appear to suggest that my coffee habit is nothing to be ashamed of. Results from a new study have just been released linking coffee consumption to a reduced risk of MS. Data from the study are to be presented in April at the upcoming American Academy of Neurology’s Annual Meeting in Washington. Although details are still scarce, the findings are available in abstract form (you will need to register before you can read the abstract, but registration is free).


Image credits: Coffee related by trophygeek / CC BY


The observational study, conducted by a collaborative international team of researchers including Dr. Ellen Mowry, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, examined data sets from two populations: one in Sweden consisting of 1,629 people with MS and 2,807 health controls, and an American group of 584 people with MS and 581 healthy controls.

The research team found that high coffee intake was associated with reduced odds of developing MS in both populations. In the Swedish study, individuals who drank 6 or more cups of coffee daily had 1/3 the chance of developing MS the following year than those who eschewed coffee completely. The seemingly protective effects of coffee appear to apply over the long-term as well, since those who drank large quantities of coffee over 5- and 10-year periods before the emergence of symptoms showed a comparable reduced risk of MS as those in the 1-year study period. In the American study, people who drank 4 cups or more per day had reduced their risk of MS by 1/3 compared to those who didn’t drink coffee.

Both studies controlled for other factors that are known to contribute to MS risk, including age, sex, smoking, and sun exposure habits.

This population-based study follows on the heels of earlier experiments testing the effects of caffeine in mice with an MS-like disease. Those experiments, conducted by researchers at Cornell University, showed that mice given the human-equivalent of six to eight cups of coffee per day were protected from the onset of disease symptoms. Caffeine stimulates arousal and produces its characteristic “buzz” by blocking the receptors for a molecule in the brain called adenosine, which has been shown to promote sleep. Adenosine also stimulates certain immune cells and drives their entry into the central nervous system. The authors of the study hypothesized that one mechanism by which caffeine can protect against MS is by blocking adenosine and preventing the efficient entry of these harmful immune cells into the brain and spinal cord during the initiation of MS-like disease in mice.

The findings from this new population study are not entirely surprising, given that caffeine has been shown to have protective effects in other neurodegenerative disorders, including Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, although the study identified a correlation between coffee consumption and decreased MS risk, it can’t speak to whether drinking coffee causes the decrease in risk, nor whether people already living with MS can benefit from increased coffee intake. Further research is necessary before more definitive conclusions can be made.

Do you like a fresh cuppa before you start your day, or is it not your thing? Leave a comment below.

Categories Research

National vice-president, research, past MS researcher, and PhD in Cellular and Molecular Medicine from University of Ottawa. Leads the MS Society's research program to find the cure for MS and improve the quality of life for people affected by the disease.

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