But the study involved mice, and its authors say it is not yet clear if the findings apply to humans.
About 400,000 Americans and 2.5 million people worldwide have multiple sclerosis.
"This is really exciting because the results were completely unexpected," Linda Thompson, PhD, of Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, tells WebMD.
Caffeine Protected Mice
The study involved mice genetically engineered by Thompson to develop an MS-like disease called encephalomyelitis (EAE).
Mice in the study did not develop the disease, however, when fed large amounts of caffeine -- equivalent to six to eight cups of caffeinated coffee a day.
The caffeine blocked a compound called adenosine that triggers the events that lead to the mouse form of MS.
"For MS to develop, immune cells must cross the blood-brain barrier," the study's principal author Margaret Bynoe, PhD, of Cornell University, tells WebMD. "Caffeine blocked the adenosine receptor, preventing these immune cells from getting through."
This destruction of myelin over time causes the progressive symptoms characteristic of multiple sclerosis, which can range from muscle tingling to complete paralysis and can also include mild to severe impairment in speech, vision, and mental function.
Although the researchers focused on caffeine, other adenosine blockers may prove to be more useful in future studies, Bynoe says.
More Coffee? Not So Fast
The study appears in the July 8 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was also presented in April at the 95th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Immunologists in San Diego.
"When the report first came out, people called and asked me if they should drink more coffee," Bynoe says. "But that is really missing the point. It remains to be seen if caffeine is protective in humans."
Studies that could answer this question are currently under way in Bynoe's lab.
In addition to possibly protecting against MS and protecting people who have it, adenosine blockers might even help repair the damage caused by the disease, she says.