How the neurochemicals in coffee affect your thinking

by Marc Wilson / 01 August, 2018
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A recent review of research suggests that jolt from the morning coffee may be cognitively and physically beneficial.

This year is the first in a while that I’ve not headed to the US for a mid-year conference, but I made up for it with a couple of months in Massachusetts over Christmas. I have a routine there that involves heading to the nearest supermarket and buying supplies. By “supplies” I mean coffee for the filter machine that you’ll find in pretty much every American apartment or house I’ve stayed in.

This last trip was defined by the discovery of pumpkin-spiced coffee. It was surprisingly nice out of the pot, and it made the apartment smell like Christmas. Best of all, it was cheap.

For the past decade or so, my usual day at home starts with extracting a homemade latte from my long-suffering espresso machine, and if that doesn’t happen … well, the day doesn’t really start.

The behaviourists will tell me, my environment controls my behaviour. In this case, I have a routine, a habit. I have come to associate a whole bunch of this part of the day with the ritual of making and consuming that cup of coffee.

But I worry that I may satisfy the diagnostic criteria for a substance-use disorder. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the fifth edition (DSM-5 to its friends), one can be considered for this diagnosis if one meets at least two of 11 criteria. I don’t think I drink more coffee than originally planned, or worry about stopping coffee. I don’t think coffee has affected my relationships (it would certainly negatively affect my relationship with my wife if I stopped taking her a morning coffee). And I don’t drink coffee when it’s dangerous to do so, though I have walked down the stairs a few times with a hot coffee in hand (don’t tell WorkSafe).

But I do “crave” my coffee, and I have built up a tolerance (I used to drink about eight or nine cups during evening shifts when I was a student). I also experience withdrawal if I don’t get my fix. Yup, that 11am coffee headache is a killer, and not easily chased away without the hair of the milky dog.

Coffee is a huge industry, worth more than US$30 billion ($44 billion) in commodity exports in 2015, and that doesn’t include the revenue generated after the beans are traded.

And there is reason to think that, like many things, moderate consumption of coffee, if not actually psychologically “good” for you, confers cognitive and physical benefits.

A recent review of the research on this topic concluded that low to moderate amounts of caffeine improve attention, reaction times and simple decision-making processes. Fortnite players can get their prescriptions filled at Starbucks, then.

Caffeine has this effect because it is structurally similar to a neurochemical called adenosine. Your body naturally produces adenosine, and when adenosine slots into the little adenosine parking spots dotted around your neural membrane, it triggers a slowdown in brain activity and you feel sleepy. Within an hour of your coffee, caffeine starts to fill up the areas usually reserved for adenosine, inhibiting that slowdown and sleepiness.

It’s less clear, however, whether coffee helps with memory or complex decision-making. Interestingly, some studies have shown that coffee may have particular benefits as we get older, and perhaps more strongly in women.

It’s been speculated that this may have something to do with another property that caffeine shares with adenosine – its neuroprotective properties, which can reduce the harm associated with neurological incidents such as seizures.

Of course, correlation does not mean causation. It may also just be that people who are chronically unwell tend to reduce their coffee consumption.

Coffee-lovers beware, though. This is not a situation in which more always means better. For the coffee-dependent, that first coffee isn’t so much about boosting your cognitive muscles as helping them get back up to the place they would be if you weren’t in withdrawal.

This article was first published in the July 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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