Stimulating Your Memory

Jan 20 2014 @ 8:35am

A new study indicates that caffeine “may enhance consolidation of memories only if it is consumed after a learning or memory challenge.” Cathy Newman talked to one of the study’s researchers, Michael Yassa:

So you gave people who didn’t regularly use caffeine either a placebo or a 200-milligram caffeine tablet five minutes after they studied a group of images. Both groups returned 24 hours later to be tested. The caffeine users remembered the images better.

Caffeine was first isolated from the coffee bean in the 19th century by a German chemist. Do we know exactly how it works? There are several mechanisms. It acts on the adenosine receptors and increases heart rate, vigilance, blood pressure—the fight-or-flight response when you see a bear. It’s what happens when someone says, “I get an adrenaline rush.” It also acts on a small region of the hippocampus, which plays an important role in long- and short-term memory.

How much coffee do you have to drink to get 200 milligrams of caffeine?

It’s about two shots of espresso.

Should we all rush out and order triple-shot grande lattes as a result of these findings?

Keep in mind that those drinks also involve lots and lots of sugar. I’ve been a coffee drinker for years, and I’m not going to double my dose.

Victoria Turk feels that the study is being misreported:

Sure enough, the people who were given caffeine rather than a placebo (it was a double-blind study) completed the task a bit better. “We conclude that caffeine enhanced consolidation of long-term memories in humans,” wrote the researchers.

That’s all very interesting. But it doesn’t follow that downing an espresso after a revision session will make you perform better in an exam the next day, as some reports would have you believe.

What actually happened in the study is that those who had caffeine were better at spotting which images were similar but not exactly the same to the previous day’s. They weren’t significantly better at spotting which images were brand new and which were the same. That’s quite a specific effect observed, then, and one that doesn’t immediately transfer into real-life applications.

Previous Dish on how to time your caffeine consumption here.