Is coffee good for your memory?
On those arduous revision sessions we all reach for the coffee pot. We, the late night caffeine-crammers, quite literally measure out our university lives by the coffee spoon. Globally, over two billion cups of coffee are consumed every day. The thirst for java is relentless, but why? Can caffeine do more than keep us awake?
Michael Yassa, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, has put forward the claim that caffeine can help consolidate our memories. His work follows on from Dr Geraldine Wright of Newcastle University, UK, who demonstrated the link between caffeine and long-term memory in honeybees. Dr. Wright is particularly pleased that her research has informed Yassa’s study between caffeine and the human subject.
Yassa’s experiment involved 160 volunteers taking tablets containing 200 milligrams of caffeine (50 mg is approximately the equivalent of one mug of instant coffee) and recalling what they saw. Subjects were exposed to pictures of everyday items and indicated whether each picture was an “indoor” or “outdoor” item. 24 hours later they returned to take another test which they were not made aware of in the previous scenario. During this second test they saw an array of the old items they had previously classified, new items, and items that were similar but not identical to the ones they saw during the first experiment. The participants were asked to indicate whether the items were old, new or similar. Yassa and his team observed that those who were administered with caffeine (200 mg) were better at deciphering the old images from the similar images than those who were administered with a placebo.
The evidence has led Yassa to conclude that caffeine, with the correct dosage, can increase our process of memory consolidation i.e. the system by which we strengthen our memories in their moments of acquisition and recollection. Yassa insists, “This doesn’t mean people should only drink coffee after they’ve studied, and not before,” He says, “I think you would get the boost regardless.” He reasons that the process of consolidation is likely to begin as soon as new memories are created.
However, before you rush to the kettle and start glugging the java, check your caffeine intake. By adjusting the quantitative variables of his experiment, Yassa showed that caffeine, taken in smaller or larger amounts, negates and potentially harms the mental capabilities of the mind. Wright, with her experiment on honey bees, has produced similar findings. By increasing and decreasing the doses of caffeine, the honey bees which had previously returned more regularly to the pollinated plants, showed no increases in pollen collection through revisited flight paths. Similarly, subjects in Yassa’s experiment who were given 100 mg or 300 mg doses of caffeine exhibited no increased signs of memory differentiation between old and similar images as they did with 200 mg of caffeine.
Downing a mug of coffee before your exam won’t help either. Yassa ran an extra experiment in which caffeine wasn’t administered until one hour before his memory test: he and his team found that there were no significant benefits. Yassa concluded, “Let’s say you studied without coffee and decided to drink a cup right before an exam – that’s not going to help you retrieve memories better.”
It would appear that helpful coffee-induced-revision is that type of study done in conjunction with your 200 mg of caffeine. But try telling that to the coffee addict, with tired eyes pried open on the seventh mug putting the final touches to their essay.