Researchers May Finally Understand Where The Mental Boost From Coffee Really Comes From

Coffee’s reputation as a pick-me-up has largely been attributed to its caffeine content, but there’s no conclusive evidence.

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Asian woman chill with relax time take a break drinking warm coffee sitting at home office.
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Are you among the many people who need coffee buzzing around in your brain before tackling the day? As it turns out, this demand for a caffeine-filled beverage may have nothing to do with the stimulant itself and instead be a well-brewed placebo effect. But that doesn’t mean you should quit your daily latte.

That’s at least according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Frontiers of Behavioral Neuroscience.

Coffee’s reputation as a pick-me-up has largely been attributed to its caffeine content. The stimulant increases activity in your brain and nervous system, dialing up adrenaline as well as hormones involved in your fight or flight response, like epinephrine and norepinephrine. You might perceive caffeine as a cognitive enhancer because of these effects. However, there hasn’t been conclusive evidence showing it can improve cognitive or mental function.

In the new study, a group of Spanish and Portuguese researchers took MRI brain scans of regular coffee drinkers 30 minutes before and after drinking a cup of coffee or taking a caffeine pill (the participants were instructed to avoid ingesting any outside caffeine). Both groups showed decreased activity in the default mode network — neural regions that show increased activity when a person isn’t focused on what’s happening around them, such as when they are daydreaming — particularly in an area called the precuneus, considered the central node of the default mode network. This means that consuming both caffeine and coffee does jolt you to wakefulness.

However, experiencing that cup of joe appeared to increase connectivity in the brain’s higher visual network and right executive control network, while caffeine alone did not do this. This made the participants “more ready for action and alert to external stimuli after having coffee,” Maria Picó-Pérez, the study’s first author and a postdoctoral researcher at Jaume I University in Spain, said in a press release.

Before you go off mistrusting your double shot of espresso, the study does have a few limitations. One is that there wasn’t a group of non-coffee drinkers, or even a decaf group, to compare the results with. Further, the researchers only looked at how coffee and caffeine affect the brain when it's at rest (resting-state brain connectivity). For future studies, the researchers say it would be useful to investigate how coffee and caffeine impact the brain during specific tasks or events. This would provide more insights into the cognitive and psychological effects of coffee intake and help differentiate the responses to caffeine between folks who routinely enjoy a morning brew and those who don’t.

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