VALENCIA, Spain — The invigorating “buzz” you feel from your first morning cup of coffee might be more psychological than physiological, new research shows. Simply put, that morning caffeine boost might be all in your head.
Scientists believe that the perceived energy boost from drinking coffee in the morning could be more of a placebo effect rather than to the effects of caffeine itself.
“There is a common expectation that coffee increases alertness and psychomotor functioning. When you get to understand better the mechanisms underlying a biological phenomenon, you open pathways for exploring the factors that may modulate it and even the potential benefits of that mechanism,” says the study’s corresponding author, Professor Nuno Sousa of the University of Minho in Portugal, in a media release.
Many people insist that they can’t start their day without finishing their cup of coffee, believing it triggers alertness and increases efficiency. However, according to this international team of researchers, this might be a misconception. Their findings suggest that habitual coffee drinkers, especially those who experience increased anxiety or elevated blood pressure from caffeine, might benefit from breaking the habit.
The study revealed that consuming coffee increased connectivity in the higher visual network and the right executive control network – regions of the brain’s grey matter associated with working memory, cognitive control, and goal-oriented behavior. However, this increase in connectivity did not occur when participants consumed caffeine without the coffee-drinking experience.
“Acute coffee consumption decreased the functional connectivity between brain regions of the default mode network, a network that is associated with self-referential processes when participants are at rest. The functional connectivity was also decreased between the somatosensory/motor networks and the prefrontal cortex, while the connectivity in regions of the higher visual and the right executive control network was increased after drinking coffee,” says Dr. Maria Pico-Perez, the study’s lead author from Jaume I University in Valencia. “In simple words, the subjects were more ready for action and alert to external stimuli after having coffee.”
The study participants, all regular coffee drinkers, were asked to avoid consuming any caffeinated beverages or food for at least three hours. They then underwent MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans before and 30 minutes after either consuming caffeine or drinking a standard cup of coffee. During the scans, they were instructed to relax and allow their minds to wander.
Researchers initially anticipated the data to show heightened integration of networks linked to the prefrontal cortex (associated with executive memory) and the default mode network (associated with introspection and self-reflection processes). However, the connectivity of the default mode network decreased both after drinking coffee and consuming caffeine. This indicated that either caffeine or coffee made people more prepared to transition from resting to task-oriented activities.
“Taking into account that some of the effects that we found were reproduced by caffeine, we could expect other caffeinated drinks to share some of the effects. However, others were specific for coffee drinking, driven by factors such as the particular smell and taste of the drink, or the psychological expectation associated with consuming that drink,” adds Dr. Pico-Perez.
Despite this, it is widely acknowledged that caffeine is a stimulant, and some studies suggest that consuming three cups of coffee a day can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
“The changes in connectivity were studied during a resting-state sequence. Any association with psychological and cognitive processes is interpreted based on the common function ascribed to the regions and networks found, but it was not directly tested. Moreover, there could be individual differences in the metabolism of caffeine among participants that would be interesting to explore in the future,” concludes Prof. Sousa.
The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.
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South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.