Coffee grounds transform into quantum dots to treat dementias

Scientists have turned old coffee grounds into a substance that could prevent Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.

Carbon quantum dots, made from caffeic acid in used coffee, have shown promise in lab-based tests to protect brain cells from substances that can cause these diseases.

While still in its early stages, the research could herald an environmentally friendly way to neurodegenerative diseases that have been caused by environmental factors, like age or exposure to toxins (like the pesticide paraquat).

“Caffeic-acid based carbon quantum dots have the potential to be transformative in the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders,” says Jyotish Kumar, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at El Paso and lead author on a paper published in Environmental Research.

“This is because none of the current treatments resolve the diseases; they only help manage the symptoms. Our aim is to find a cure by addressing the atomic and molecular underpinnings that drive these conditions.”

Quantum dots, a concept which won this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry, are crystals the size of nanometres (on the same scale as molecules). The team made these quantum dots with purchased caffeic acid, but they point out it’s been made before by extraction from used coffee grounds.

In their early stages, many neurodegenerative diseases share chemical features, particularly if they’ve been caused by environmental factors. People have higher levels of molecules called free radicals in their system, and they also have a build up of a type of protein (amyloid proteins) in the brain.

Caffeic acid is an antioxidant, which neutralises free radicals. It’s also capable of getting from our blood stream into our brains (crossing the “blood-brain barrier”), so the researchers thought it could be an effective medication.

Group of people in lab smiling
The research team. Credit: The University of Texas at El Paso.

“It is critical to address these disorders before they reach the clinical stage,” says co-author Professor Mahesh Narayan, also at the University of Texas at El Paso.

“At that point, it is likely too late. Any current treatments that can address advanced symptoms of neurodegenerative disease are simply beyond the means of most people.

“Our aim is to come up with a solution that can prevent most cases of these conditions at a cost that is manageable for as many patients as possible.”

The researchers tested their quantum dots on cell lines that had had Parkinson’s disease induced by paraquat. The caffeic acid both removed free radicals and prevented amyloid proteins building up.

The researchers are now seeking funding to see if they can take the substance to pre-clinical trials – the first step on the long road towards a medication.

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