Deconstructing Coffee

Research Plots Path to Answers

Take a poll of the people around you. How much coffee do they drink? How strongly does caffeine affect them? You may be surprised by the disparity in coffee consumption and bodily response.

The truth of the matter is that the effects of coffee, good and bad, vary wildly from person to person. Further complicating matters, the specific mechanisms within coffee are not yet fully understood on a scientific level. But Marilyn Cornelis, PhD, assistant professor in Preventive Medicine-Nutrition at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, is on a mission to grind out the underlying actions in this ubiquitous beverage.

The Good, the Bad, the Caffeinated

In previous studies, coffee has been connected to a lower risk of type II diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. However, the beverage has been associated with adverse effects as well.

News of the potential benefits and risks prompts people to reconsider their coffee intake. However, variables make it hard to gauge a person’s response to coffee, harder still to recommend increases or decreases in consumption.

One solution, Cornelis hopes, is in the biology. Variations in metabolism and response to caffeine start to explain why some people can drink multiple cups on end, while others find themselves wired after one. And Cornelis’ research offers a plan to hone in on the genetic markers and mechanisms behind these complicated responses.

Markers and Measures

This isn’t Cornelius’ first cup of coffee. She’s been studying the genetic markers of the enigmatic stimulant for over ten years. Early in her research, she investigated CYP1A2 , a gene known to have a key role in caffeine metabolism. She explored the association between coffee intake and heart attacks in people carrying a variant of the gene that results in slow caffeine metabolism. In another paper, she linked six new genetic variants to coffee consumption and identified the genes related to caffeine metabolism and caffeine’s psychoactive effects.

Cornelius now turns her attention to studying the patterns, causes and effects within the biological system of coffee consumption. This will involve accounting for the non-caffeine elements in coffee consumption including behavioral, environmental and genetic factors. Cornelius plans to do so by finding new measurements for the internal dose of caffeine.

She hopes that a multifaceted approach to studying DNA, RNA, proteins and metabolism will reveal the underlying mechanisms causing the effects of coffee consumption.