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We coffee lovers have always known that we’re smarter than the average bear, but until recently, we haven’t had the research to back it up. All that is changing now, though. In recent years, research into the effects of coffee and caffeine on the brain seem to show that people who regularly drink coffee just may have an advantage intellectually.
What the research says about coffee, caffeine and intelligence:
The Koppelstatter Study – Caffeine Improves Short-term Memory
Dr. Florian Koppelstatter of the Medical University Innsbruck authored a 2005 study of the effects of caffeine on short term memory and presented the results at the 2005 Annual Meeting of the Radiological Society of North America. His study team had devised a two part test to measure how caffeine affects the brain and the way that it functions. His study used 15 male volunteers between the ages of 26 and 45. All of the volunteers refrained from caffeine and from nicotine for 48 hours before the study began to ensure that all were starting the tests with their systems caffeine and stimulant-free.
In the first part of the study, half the volunteers took caffeine that was the equivalent of two cups of coffee while the other half took a placebo. After giving the caffeine time to be ingested, all of the volunteers were given a functional MRI to measure brain activity. The caffeinated volunteers all showed significantly higher rates of electrical activity in two parts of the brain – the part of the frontal lobe that is part of the short term memory network, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which controls attention. In other words, not only were they paying closer attention, but the part of the brain that controls short term memory was more actively engaged.
In the second part of the test, the volunteers were given a computerized test that measures short term memory function. Each volunteer was shown a series of single capital letters on the computer screen and asked to determine whether the letter on the screen matched on that had been shown two screens previously. The computer measured both accuracy and reaction time. In this test, the caffeinated volunteers performed significantly better in both reaction times and accuracy than the non-caffeinated group.
The next day, the volunteers performed the same two tests, but those who had been caffeinated the day before were given a placebo and vice versa. The results were the same – the caffeinated group performed better and showed more brain activity than the non-caffeinated group.
Dr. Bruce Rubin, a Miami neurologist, said that until recently, researchers had surmised that people who drink coffee perform better on routine tests like the alphabet test because caffeine improves attention. This study, he says, suggests that there is more at work than simply increasing attention to detail. Based on the MRIs, it appears that caffeine may actually immediately improve short term memory.
However, researchers caution that this is not a case of more is better. Once you get above a certain level of caffeine in the system, the boost is offset by jitteriness and other side effects associated with too much caffeine.