A lot of people rely on a cup of coffee in the morning to keep their sleepy eyes open, but new research suggests that a morning cup of joe might actually play a role in keeping your eyes healthy.

Writing in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a team of food scientists reports that coffee may play a role in preventing deteriorating eyesight and possible blindness from retinal degeneration due to glaucoma, aging and diabetes.

At the heart of this theory is chlorogenic acid, or CLA, which is a strong antioxidant shown to prevent retinal degeneration in mice. The retina is a thin layer of eye tissue that's covered with millions of light-sensitive cells. Retina tissue is highly metabolically active, and it needs lots of oxygen, which can make it prone to oxidative stress. A lack of oxygen and limited production of free radicals leads to tissue damage and loss of eyesight.

Wanting to test the oxidative properties of CLA, a team of researchers from Cornell University and the Functional Food Center of the Korea Institute of Science and Technology devised an experiment. They treated mice eyes with nitric oxide, which causes oxidative stress and free radicals, leading to retinal degeneration. Mice in the test group that were treated with CLA developed no retinal generation, the researchers said.

"Coffee is the most popular drink in the world, and we are understanding what benefit we can get from that," lead study author Chang Y. Lee, a food science professor at Cornell, said in a statement.

Lee said the study highlights the beneficial health effects of natural foods, like coffee.

CLA is absorbed in the human digestive system, and the next step of the research will be to determine if CLA ingested from coffee is delivered directly to retinas. If it does, physicians may one day be able to prescribe a cup of coffee to prevent retinal damage.