Java Jives With Brain

/ by Maggie Wittlin /

Caffeine boosts short-term memory.

A couple of cups of joe turns your average Joe into a memorizing machine. Austrian researchers have the fMRI images to prove it.

Florian Koppelstätter of Austria’s Medical University Innsbruck and his team of researchers found that the caffeine in a modern worker’s morning hit of coffee significantly improves short-term working memory. Koppelstätter presented the study in Chicago on Wednesday, November 30th at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

“We find an improvement of the short-term memory in the brain after the people consumed just 100 milligrams of caffeine,” Koppelstätter said. “That’s the amount in about two cups of coffee.”

The Austrians used a pool of 15 healthy, right-handed men who each performed a short-term memory test in two separate scenarios. Before one run, subjects drank either a tasteless, odorless, caffeinated beverage; on another run, they would drink a tasteless, odorless, non-caffeinated beverage (aka water). The subjects were shown a randomized sequence of four capital letters as their brain was monitored with fMRI. For each letter, subjects were asked to determine whether the letter was the same as the one shown two images earlier.

Consistent with previous studies, the subjects on caffeine showed an improved ability to remember whether or not they’d seen the letter before. However, Koppelstätter said, this study was the first to directly observe increased activity in regions responsible for processing short-term memory: the regions controlling focus, memorization and recall.

“We found more activation in the caffeine condition in a distinct brain area in the frontal portion of the brain,” he said. “This is a part of the working memory network where, specially, executive functions are located.”

According to Koppelstätter, this area of the brain is specifically responsible for attentiveness. Therefore, the imaging showed that the subjects in the caffeine condition were focusing more intensely than those in the placebo condition.

While your inner statistician might balk at the puny subject pool, Koppelstätter said there’s no need to fear: His results hold for the whole population. He and his team used random effects analysis, a method that generalizes results based on those of a random sample, and still found a significant effect due to caffeine.

The research is far from over though: Koppelstätter wants to investigate how response varies with caffeine concentration and the subject’s level of regular consumption.

Until then, let the decaf drinkers trail in the dust.

Originally published December 5, 2005

Tags cognition data neuroscience research

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