A new study is suggesting that having several cups of coffee a day could halt the development of multiple sclerosis (MS).
The researchers made this discovery in a study with mice bred to develop an MS-like condition, experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis, or EAE.
Those who were fed the equivalent of six to eight cups of coffee a day, did not develop EAE.
The scientists from the U.S. and Finland believe the caffeine affects a molecule called adenosine, which plays a role in sleep and energy production and when the mice were dosed with caffeine, adenosine could not link to a particular receptor on the surface of cells.
This appeared to have an indirect effect on the ability of immune cells to enter the nervous system at a part of the brain called the choroid plexus, and the mice did not develop EAE.
They hope that the finding may prove to be relevant for other autoimmune diseases, in which the body uses the weapons of the immune system against itself, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
Professor Linda Thompson of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, says this is an exciting and unexpected finding which could be important for the study of MS and other diseases.
The study was carried out in collaboration with Dr. Jeffrey Mills and Dr. Margaret Bynoe of Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, along with colleagues in Finland's University of Turku.
According to Professor Thompson there is much more work to be done for the prevention of multiple sclerosis in humans and she says a retrospective study of people with MS to track their caffeine intake and the effects on the disease could be an important next step in the research process.
Professor Thompson says if a correlation between caffeine intake and reduced MS symptoms is then found, that would point to further studies in humans.
MS is a disorder of the central nervous system which causes weakness, numbness, a loss of muscle coordination, and problems with vision, speech and bladder control and it affects 2.5 million people worldwide.
Current treatments are limited only to slowing the progress of the disease once it is established.
Experts recommend no more than five cups of coffee a day.
The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.