Drinking Caffeine Regularly Will Change Your Brain

Drinking Caffeine Regularly Will Change Your Brain

By Jim Windell

            I do not need caffeine in the morning to kickstart my day. As a matter of fact, I don’t drink coffee at all. Once, about 50 years ago, to be polite, I drank a half cup of coffee. I rarely drink caffeine-laden soft drinks and I never consume energy drinks.

           This doesn’t make me a better person. I’ve often wondered if I was missing out on some benefits. After all, billions of people around the world seem to do fine drinking their coffee every day. A new study, though, makes me think that maybe my aversion to coffee (and anything that tastes even remotely like coffee) has protected my brain in some way.

           Researchers from the University of Basel have now shown in a study that regular caffeine intake can change the gray matter of the brain. The researchers observed changes in the gray matter, as they report in the journal Cerebral Cortex. Gray matter refers to the parts of the central nervous system made up primarily of the cell bodies of nerve cells, while white matter mainly comprises the neural pathways, the long extensions of the nerve cells.

           In the study, a group of 20 healthy young individuals, all of whom drink coffee every day, were given tablets to take over two 10-day periods and were asked not to consume any other caffeine during this time. During one study period, they received tablets with caffeine; in the other, tablets with no active ingredient; a placebo. At the end of each 10-day period, the researchers examined the volume of the subjects' gray matter by means of brain scans. They also investigated the participants' sleep quality in the sleep laboratory by recording the electrical activity of the brain (EEG).

           The result was that sleep was unaffected – regardless of whether they had taken the caffeine or the placebo capsules. But the researchers saw a significant difference in the gray matter that was related to whether the subjects had received caffeine or the placebo. After 10 days of placebo – in other words, caffeine abstinence – the volume of gray matter was greater than following the same period of time with caffeine capsules.

           The difference in the volume of grey matter was particularly striking in the right medial temporal lobe, including the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is essential to memory consolidation.

           Dr. Carolin Reichert, who led the research team and is Professor Christian Cajochen of the University of Basel and the Psychiatric Hospital of the University of Basel commented on their findings: "Our results do not necessarily mean that caffeine consumption has a negative impact on the brain. But daily caffeine consumption evidently affects our cognitive hardware, which in itself should give rise to further studies."

           Dr. Reichert added that in the past the health effects of caffeine have been investigated primarily in patients, but there is also a need for research on healthy subjects.

           Although caffeine appears to reduce the volume of gray matter, after just 10 days of coffee abstinence it had significantly regenerated in the test subjects. "The changes in brain morphology seem to be temporary, but systematic comparisons between coffee drinkers and those who usually consume little or no caffeine have so far been lacking," says Dr. Reichert.

           It has been confirmed in other research that their sleep quality decreases if they drink coffee or other caffeine beverages close to bedtime. Also, it is known that sleep deprivation can in turn affect the gray matter of the brain. However, this study suggests that sleep is not necessarily affected by regular caffeine use and although the grey matter is reduced by caffeine the change in the brain is only temporary.

           So, you don’t have to sacrifice your daily dose of caffeine – at least not yet.

           To read the journal article, find it with this reference:

Yu-Shiuan Lin, Janine Weibel, Hans-Peter Landolt, Francesco Santini, Martin Meyer, Julia Brunmair, Samuel M Meier-Menches, Christopher Gerner, Stefan Borgwardt, Christian Cajochen, Carolin Reichert. Daily Caffeine Intake Induces Concentration-Dependent Medial Temporal Plasticity in Humans: A Multimodal Double-Blind Randomized Controlled TrialCerebral Cortex, 2021; DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhab005

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