Coffee for your thoughts: New study suggests caffeine can help learning, memory

By Lindsey Woods

Holiday break is right around the corner, but instead of sugar plums dancing in the heads of students, thoughts of finals, essays and projects are accumulating. Coffee can keep you awake for long hours of studying, but a new study suggests it can do more than that.

An online article published on Nov. 20, on the Nature Neuroscience website, outlines research that indicates caffeine can help cognitive functions, such as learning, memory and comprehension.

“Caffeine is one of those drugs everybody takes, so obviously it’s of interest,” said Serena Dudek, senior investigator at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and leader of the research team.

Dudek and her team examined lab rats to determine the effects of caffeine on a remote part of the brain “which has not been studied in this context,” according to the study. It focused on a specific section of the hippocampus, which is heavily involved in controlling cognitive functions. According to Dudek, her research focuses on the CA2 region of the hippocampus, while most studies have focused on the CA1 region.

“[My team and I] have been studying the CA2 region and how it behaves for [approximately] six years,” Dudek said. “Ninety percent of studies or more study the CA1 region, and relatively few or none are done on the CA2.”

Dudek said the CA2 “behaves physiologically very differently” than the CA1. Of particular interest in this study is the highly concentrated number of A1 adenosine receptors, which are irritated by caffeine molecules, according to Dudek. In laymen’s terms, the CA2 reacts differently to caffeine than the CA1, according to the study.

To isolate the CA2 and rule out any outside effects, the research team examined the rats’ brains when caffeine was orally ingested and when it was directly applied to the CA2, according to Dudek. In both processes, the rats’ brains were removed and kept alive by a process that is common in scientific research, Dudek said. They concluded that in both cases, the caffeine improved synaptic strength in the CA2, meaning messages were better able to travel through the brain. This means that it may be able to help improve study sessions.

“The strengthening and weakening of synapses is thought to be the underlying mechanism of learning and memory,” Dudek said.

David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of “Your Brain at Work,” said when using rats, one has to be careful when drawing conclusions about the human brain, although the two are scientifically similar.

“Of course, you have to be careful with an animal study and saying humans are the same because we’re not the same,” he said. “There are some common principles, though, and there have been many studies done with humans and the cognitive impact of caffeine.”

Rock said caffeine is a popular research topic because in modern society, we are asked to absorb more information at a faster rate.

“The speed at which we have to both digest information and then make decisions and act on them has increased so much,” Rock said. “Naturally, we’re looking for everything we can to increase that, and coffee has the folklore of working, so everyone wants to know if it really does.”

In the field of neuroscience, there has been ample research to support the benefits of daily caffeine consumption, according to Rock.

“Caffeine is showing up as one of the few cognitive enhancers,” he said.

Rock also warns that while caffeine increases cognitive functions, it may inhibit others or have undesirable effects in certain situations.

“It has a number of effects, not all positive,” he said. “Caffeine increases your sense of arousal and alertness, but it doesn’t necessarily increase your creative thinking. In fact, it probably has a negative impact on being creative, but a positive impact on executing things or focusing on what you have to do.”

Caffeine may be good for cognition, but Dudek said that overall, her research only focuses on the neuroscience of caffeine and that it may have negative effects elsewhere in the body.

“I drink a lot of coffee, and I don’t see any harm in it yet,” Dudek said. “Obviously, the problems with caffeine are probably more cardiovascular. When you’re amped up on caffeine, your heart’s racing, which can be bad.”

Like anything else, moderation is important, Dudek said.

“I wouldn’t recommend doses that are higher than what your heart wants to have,” she said. “[But] that grande latte may not be a bad thing for your studying.”