The powers of caffeine have been touted for much of recorded history. Caffeine consumption can be traced back to the Stone Age, where early humans may have chewed on seeds, bark and leaves to experience caffeine-related effects. Today, caffeine is the world’s most highly consumed psychotropic substance, used by nearly 90 percent of adults and over 70 percent of kids in North America. While much of the research done about caffeine’s impact on health continues to encourage folks to reach for that morning cup of coffee, a new study has found that caffeine can actually help enhance people’s memories.
A recent study in Nature Neuroscience journal suggests that a small amount of caffeine – what is found in a strong cup of coffee or a delish double espresso, can help enhance long-term memory in humans. But before kicking off a mega caffeine marathon to help prepare for that next exam or interview or random memory recall test, read on. Research has found that timing and dosage is key.
Dr. Michael Yassa, an assistant professor with Johns Hopkins University’s psychological and brain sciences department, helped co-author the findings of the study, which provides the first look specifically at caffeine’s effects on enhancing memories.
“I’m one of those people that feels like they can’t function without their coffee,” Yassa said in a video summary of the research project, stating that he’s always wanted to learn more about the effect caffeine can have on memory and cognition. Yassa and team recently decided to put caffeine to the test to determine whether it can truly help enhance memory.
Yassa, along with the research team at Johns Hopkins, conducted a double-blind trial in which over 150 participants who did not regularly consume caffeine were asked to review several hundred pictures of normal, everyday objects. Five minutes later, participants took either two small caffeine pills or two small placebo pills. After 24 hours, participants returned and were asked to review another set of images and identify which images were new, which ones they had already seen and which ones were similar but not identical. For example, they may have been shown a rubber duck that was facing a different direction.
While both the caffeine and placebo groups were similar in their ability to identify the images that they had seen before and those they had not, participants who had been administered caffeine were better at identifying images that were similar, but not identical to those shown the previous day. Yassa explained that the subjects who had been administered caffeine “had better retention of the information we taught them the day before.”
Why administer the caffeine after the group looked at the photos and not before? According to Yassa, administering caffeine after the study phase is a new take on caffeine-related research, much of which focuses on caffeine intake prior to administering a memory related task. When caffeine is administered after a study session, researchers are able to exclude all non-memory related effects. “It really becomes about memory more than anything else,” Yassa said.
In other words, if caffeine is administered before studying, the researchers cannot be certain that the caffeine is affecting memory alone and not a different study-related function, such as focus, attention, or observation.
What about dosage? Can drinking loads of caffeine after studying help ensure a passing grade? The short answer is, unfortunately, not so much. The study found that 200 mg of caffeine – about the same as a short brew from Starbucks – is the sweet spot. At higher intake levels, subjects reported some distracting side effects, such as headache and nausea. Lower intake levels showed no real memory-boosting powers at all.
While many consume caffeine to help wake up in the morning or for a midday kick in the pants, caffeine’s ability to help enhance memory may give many coffee-lovers yet another reason to indulge.
By Katie Bloomstrom