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See Inside September / October 2010

Prescription for a Healthier Brain: Coffee and Cigarettes?

Discovering why even bad habits can protect the brain



www.nih.gov

Inspired by human studies showing that avid coffee drinkers and smokers have a lower risk of Parkinson’s disease, scientists at the University of Washington decided to see what java and cigarettes do to fruit flies. The tremors and other movement impairments of Parkinson’s are triggered by the death of dopamine-producing cells in the brain, so the investigators used flies that had been genetically engineered to have their dopamine cells die off as they age. When Leo Pallanck and his colleagues fed coffee and tobacco extracts to these flies, they found that the animals’ dopamine cells survived and their life span increased. The scientists ruled out caffeine and nicotine as the protective substances, but there are other promising compounds in coffee and tobacco, which the researchers intend to test in these short-lived creatures. “Flies are a great system for quickly trying to zero in on the chemicals that are responsible,” Pallanck says.

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