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Coffee or caffeine: What fuels the brain’s network?

Coffee and caffeine may distinctly influence your brain’s neurological functions. Know how?

by Simran Dolwani

Many people start their day with a mug of strong and tasty coffee. It functions like a fuel without which they feel hard to sail through the events of the day. Some people consume plain caffeine for a quick boost of energy. The safe consumption limits for caffeine range between 240 mg to 260 mg per day. But researchers at the University of Minho, Portugal, have found that coffee is better than plain caffeine, in terms of the myriad health benefits it offers. They discovered that coffee increases the brain’s efficiency, enhances alertness, and improves cognitive and motor skills. 

What do you prefer, Coffee v/s Caffeine?

A lot of people think that coffee and caffeine are one and the same. But that is not true. Coffee is a beverage made by brewing powdered roasted coffee beans. On the other hand, caffeine is a psychoactive drug that is found in coffee. A psychoactive drug is a chemical substance that alters the brain’s functions. Coffee and caffeine often go hand in hand, that’s why one cannot talk about coffee without mentioning caffeine. The amount of caffeine in one cup of coffee depends on the bean type and how it is prepared. It could be addictive if consumed in large quantities for a long time. 

A cup of coffee placed in a saucer and spices scattered around on a flat tray. Image Credits: Pixabay 

Findings of the recent Coffee-Caffeine Study

Though coffee and caffeine increase wakefulness and reduce fatigue, scientists at the University of Minho conducted a study to know whether the benefits of coffee depend on other properties of caffeine or if plain caffeine is enough to stimulate the brain. 

“There is a common expectation that coffee increases alertness and psychomotor functioning,” said Nuno Sousa, professor at the University of Minho. “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.”

For the experiment, researchers selected 47 subjects who drank at least one cup of coffee every day. The participants did not have any caffeinated beverage or food for three hours before the study. Researchers interviewed the participants and performed MRI scans on their brains 30 minutes before and after caffeine intake. After adjusting for confounding variables, the results showed that caffeine consumption can reduce nerve connectivity in the brain’s network involved in self-reflection and introspection processes but energise people to work.

An outline of human head depicting neural networks in the brain

Image Credits: Pixabay 

Scientists also discovered that consuming coffee with 85 mg of caffeine reduced neural connectivity too, resulting in enhanced memory, goal-directed behaviour, and cognitive control. On the other hand, drinking only caffeine did not show these effects. 

“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,” said Maria Picó-Pérez, the study’s co-author and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minho. “The subjects were more ready for action and alert to external stimuli after having coffee.”

The research team also stated that the aroma and taste of other caffeinated beverages and even decaffeinated coffee can show these neural effects. “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,” added Picó-Pérez. “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.” The detailed study has been published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience in June 2023. 

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