Recent caffeine studies find consumption has mixed results

Brionna Lewis

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Heading to the Freudian Sip for a study session? That might not be a bad idea.

A new study conducted by a UC Irvine professor suggests that caffeine can be used to enhance your memory.

“We report for the first time a specific effect of caffeine on reducing forgetting over 24 hours,” Dr. Michael Yassa, assistant professor of neurobiology at UC Irvine, said in a statement.

In his study, 60 subjects were asked to look at 200 pictures of ordinary objects. Five minutes later, half the subjects were given 200 milligrams of caffeine in the form of a pill, while the other half were given a placebo. The study was double-blind, meaning neither the researchers nor the subjects knew who was given the placebo or the caffeine.

The next day, subjects were shown another set of pictures and asked to identify which pictures they had seen the day before, which pictures were new, and which pictures were similar to the picture they had seen, with minor differences.

The results showed the group that had received the dose of caffeine more accurately recalled the images that were similar, but a little different than the image they had seen the day before. This type of memory is called pattern separation memory; a more detailed memory.

“Pattern separation is your ability to store independent records of independent memories,” Yassa said. “For example, where you parked your car today versus yesterday.”

Yassa said the concept would be similar to a student taking a multiple-choice test being able to differentiate between a choice that is similar to what the textbook said, but not exactly, compared to the answer that is correct.

“What’s interesting about this study is that they gave the subjects the caffeine after they studied the pictures,” said Dr. Maria de Bellard, associate professor of biology at CSUN. “By having an alerted stage post-study, it was able to help build a long term memory.”

De Bellard teaches human physiology and specializes in neuroscience. She recommends that if students are going to use coffee as a study aid, they should try to drink it after studying. However, her number-one recommendation is to get some rest.

“The best thing for memory is sleep,” de Bellard said. “Research has found that the best thing you can do after studying is take a nap.”

The brain needs to rest in order to help the consolidation of memories, so getting a full nights sleep is that best thing a student can do before a big exam, de Bellard said.

The other side

Caffeine can actually slow down brain development, according to a study conducted by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).

The study reported that the duration, intensity and number of connections in the brain increase during childhood and are at their highest level during puberty and drop again during adulthood in both humans and rats.

“The brain of children is extremely plastic due to the many connections,” Dr. Reto Huber of the University Children’s Hospital Zurich said in a statement. “This optimization presumably occurs during deep sleep. Key synapses extend, others are reduced. This makes the network more efficient and the brain more powerful.”

Spurred by the concern of growing caffeine consumption by youth, a group of researchers led by Huber gave moderate doses of caffeine — the equivalent of three to four human cups of coffee — to 30-day-old rats over five days and measured the electrical current generated by their brains. The deep-sleep periods, which are identified by slow waves, were reduced from the first day the caffeine was administered well past the the last day of caffeine consumption, resulting in delayed brain development.

The slower brain development also caused behavioral differences between the rats given the caffeine and the rats given only drinking water. Generally, rats become more curious with age, however the rats given the caffeine remained more timid and cautious.

The researchers concluded that this could mean serious consequences for children consuming high quantities of caffeine, especially during puberty, when sleep is essential for brain development.

Both Yassa and de Bellard said that they would not recommend that non-coffee drinkers start because of the results of the study, as each person reacts differently to caffeine.

Rega Chum, a junior biology major, said even though her caffeine use is only occasional, she has suffered some negative side effects.

“I have anxiety, so if I drink too much coffee, it makes my anxiety really bad,” Chum said.

In contrast, there is nothing occasional about drinking coffee for Yanira Hernandez, a senior psychology student. Hernandez said she needs coffee to start her day. Otherwise, is she is grumpy and tired.

The key to healthy caffeine consumption is the dosage, de Bellard said. The average cup of coffee has about 200 milligrams of caffeine. De Bellard suggests that anything more could be dangerous unless you plan to do some high-energy exercise.

“Anything over 250 milligrams [of caffeine], you are whomping your system,” de Ballard said. “At that point, you have overstimulated your nervous system.”

Caffeine of the heart

Another recent study examined the effects of high levels of caffeine specifically found in energy drinks on the heart.

In the study conducted by researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany, 18 healthy adults were given cardiac MRI’s one hour after consuming energy drinks containing caffeine and taurine. The researchers found that the participants had significantly increased contraction rates in the left ventricle.

The research on the use of high levels of caffeine, especially over time, is still fairly new territory, suggested Dr. de Bellard. Access to extremely high levels of caffeine has only been available since the popularity of energy drinks, students should only use these substances in moderation, de Bellard said.

Emily Millar, 23, a psychology major who has graduated, said she drinks soda more often than coffee to give her a quick jolt of energy. However, she addmited to having one or two cups of coffee per day.

She feels the taste of coffee is what drives her to continue consuming it and doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.

“There is always something new about caffeine affecting your health, but It’s too good to quit,” Millar said. “If I find a study that convinces me in what way coffee harms my body, I will then quit.”