January 22, 1999

New institute to probe coffee’s chemical nature

New institute to probe coffee's chemical nature

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Representatives from VUMC and the world's coffee-producing nations gathered in Eskind Biomedical Library this week to formalize the creation of the Institute for Coffee Studies. Present were (from left) Esdras Sundfeld, Diego Pizano, David Nahum Neto, Dr. Harry Jacobson, Darcy Roberto Lima, Dr. Peter Martin, Robert Nelson and Dr. David Lovinger. (Photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

A cup 'o Joe is hot these days in more than the literal sense.

Half of Americans drink coffee every day, and in recent years coffee houses featuring exotic roasts and flavors have sprung up all over the country. While the beverage has become an essential part of contemporary life, humans have been drinking coffee for centuries. Still, little is known about coffee's chemical make-up and what its components do once inside the human body.

That, however, is about to change.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center has been awarded support of $6 million over three years to create an Institute for Coffee Studies within the Vanderbilt Addiction Center. The institute will be dedicated to studying the chemical nature of coffee, with an initial research focus on how coffee affects the brain and whether coffee can be used to treat depression and to prevent relapse in patients who have successfully undergone alcoholism treatment.

"Studies of coffee and caffeine have shown that drinking three or four cups of coffee a day is not harmful in healthy people," said Dr. Peter R. Martin, professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology and director of the division of Addiction Medicine.

"Man has decided, for whatever reason, to drink coffee. It's apparently not dangerous. It must have some benefit. It behooves us to understand that benefit. This opportunity to identify the other chemicals in coffee and study their effects is extremely exciting."

The work of the Institute for Coffee Studies will be funded by the Brazilian Coffee Association and similar associations from coffee-producing countries throughout the world dedicated to developing coffee as a crop that may replace or reduce illicit drug crops.

Investigators at the Institute for Coffee Studies will systematically evaluate other agents in coffee, besides caffeine, to determine whether they have any medicinal value, beginning with a group of chemicals called chlorogenic acids, Martin said.

"Work in the mid-1980s suggested that chlorogenic acids may have an effect on the opiate system in the brain," Martin said. "They may have antidepressant effects, which would make some sense because we know that drinking coffee gives people a sense of well-being. It's possible that these or other components of coffee may have an effect on reducing alcohol dependency."

To begin the work, the researchers will examine the chemical characteristics of coffee, evaluate their effects on the body's neurotransmitter systems, synthesize the agents that are not yet available for study and study these agents in cell cultures and animal addiction models.

"We would like to see whether chlorogenic acids or other components can have an effect on animals' alcohol self-administration," Martin said. "The idea is that, perhaps, drinking coffee can have a beneficial effect on people who are depressed and who are addicted to alcohol. That's what we'd like to determine."

The work will take research into coffee beyond the study of caffeine, its most well-known chemical component.

"Some of the chlorogenic acids are present at quite high concentrations in coffee, so you have to wonder what they do. We think it's important to find out," said David M. Lovinger, professor of Molecular Physiology and Biophysics and Pharmacology. Lovinger serves as associate director of Basic Research for the Addiction Center and the Institute for Coffee Studies.

The group representing Brazilian coffee growers became interested in Vanderbilt because of the reputation of its department of Pharmacology, Martin said. The group visited Vanderbilt last year and met with researchers in Pharmacology and the Addiction Center.

"The visiting group included a scientist, Professor Darcy Roberto Lima of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, who has been cataloging plants in the Brazilian rain forest," Martin said. "We discussed potentially expanding the project to include looking at the potential pharmacological effects of these plants."

The coffee growers hope to use the information gleaned from scientific research to make their product more healthful, Martin said.

"Coffee's chemical components vary with how it is produced," he said. "Depending on how the coffee beans are roasted, the chemical effects may be changed. The idea is to make coffee as healthful as possible and reap any medicinal benefits that may be there."

The Institute for Coffee Studies plans to report its findings at the Triennial World Conference on Coffee, Drugs, and Health, scheduled next year in Rio de Janeiro.