Chronic caffeine consumption prevents cognitive decline from young to middle age in rats, and is associated with increased length, branching, and spine density of basal dendrites in CA1 hippocampal neurons.
Chronic caffeine consumption has been inversely associated with the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Here we assessed whether chronic caffeine treatment prevents the behavioral and cognitive decline that male Wistar rats experience from young (≈3 months) to middle age (≈10 months). When animals were young they were evaluated at weekly intervals in three tests: motor activity habituation in the open field (30-min sessions at the same time on consecutive days), continuous spontaneous alternation in the Y-maze (8 min), and elevated plus-maze (5 min). Afterward, rats from the same litter were randomly assigned either to a caffeine-treated group (n=13) or a control group (n=11), which received only tap water. Caffeine treatment (5 mg/kg/day) began when animals were ≈4 months old, and lasted for 6 months. Behavioral tests were repeated from day 14 to day 28 after caffeine withdrawal, a time period that is far in excess for the full excretion of a caffeine dose in this species. Thirty days after caffeine discontinuation brains were processed for Golgi-Cox staining. Compared with controls, we found that middle-aged rats that had chronically consumed low doses of caffeine (1) maintained their locomotor habituation during the second consecutive day exposure to the open field (an index of non-associative learning), (2) maintained their exploratory drive to complete the conventional minimum of nine arm visits required to calculate the alternation performance in the Y-maze in a greater proportion, (3) maintained their alternation percentage above chance level (an index of working memory), and (4) did not increase the anxiety indexes assessed by measuring the time spent in the open arms of the elevated plus maze. In addition, morphometric analysis of hippocampal neurons revealed that dendritic branching (90-140 μm from the soma), length of 4th and 5th order branches, total dendritic length, and spine density in distal dendritic branches were greater in the basal but not the apical dendrites of CA1 pyramidal neurons from rats chronically treated with caffeine, in comparison with their age- and littermate-matched controls. Altogether, the present findings strengthen the epidemiological observations suggesting that prolonged caffeine intake prevents the cognitive decline associated with aging, and open the possibility that this process could be mediated by promoting the growth of dendrites and spines in neurons of the adult mammalian brain. Copyright © 2011 IBRO. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.