Researchers have identified 24 compounds, including caffeine, that may be able to boost an enzyme in the brain that has been shown to protect against dementia.

The enzyme, called NMNAT2, was discovered by researchers at Indiana University, and it reduces the damage caused by harmful proteins in the brain.

“This work could help advance efforts to develop drugs that increase levels of this enzyme in the brain, creating a chemical ‘blockade’ against the debilitating effects of neurodegenerative disorders,” said study leader Hui-Chen Lu.

In previous research, Lu and colleagues found that NMNAT2 plays two roles in the brain: a protective function to guard neurons from stress, and a “chaperone function” to combat misfolded proteins called tau. Tau proteins accumulate in the brain forming plaques that are caused by aging. Lu’s earlier research found that mice altered to produce misfolded tau also produced lower levels of NMNAT2.

Misfolded proteins have been linked to neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, as well as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of these disorders, affects over 5.4 million Americans, and numbers are expected to rise as the population ages.

Lu’s team screened over 1,280 compounds, including existing drugs for beneficial effects. They identified a total of 24 compounds that had the potential to increase the production of NMNAT2 in the brain.

When researchers gave caffeine to mice modified to produce lower levels of NMNAT2, they began to produce the same levels of the enzyme as normal mice.

Another compound found to increase NMNAT2 production in the brain was rolipram, an “orphaned drug” whose development as an antidepressant was discontinued in the mid-1990s.

Ziprasidone, cantharidin, wortmannin and retinoic acid were all found to increase the production of NMNAT2 in the brain as well as 13 additional compounds.

Numerous studies have shown caffeine’s benefits in many areas of health, including cancer and heart disease.

According to a study from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, drinking caffeinated coffee on a regular basis may prevent a recurrence of colon cancer, and improve chances of a cure. Patients who had been treated with both surgery and chemotherapy for stage III colon cancer and drank four or more cups of coffee daily had a 42 percent lower risk of having their cancer return than patients who didn’t drink coffee.

And a recent study from Stanford University School of Medicine found that coffee tamps down the type of age-related inflammation that triggers heart disease in older people.

As the body ages, metabolites from the breakdown of nucleic acids increase inflammation, but researchers found that the metabolites found in caffeine counter their effects. People who had the least number of nucleic acid metabolites in their blood were the biggest coffee drinkers, and were eight times more likely to have a close family member live to the age of 90 or older.

Coffee can even help stop you from regaining lost weight. Scientists at Germany’s Hannover Medical School found that dieters who lost the most weight — and kept it off — also drank the most coffee.