Updated March 16, 2015.
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Looking for something to super-size your memory? Me, too.
One theory out there is that caffeine, which has been associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease when consumed in mid-life, can also help improve your cognitive functioning now. Sounds great to me. Although I'm not a big coffee drinker, I do like the flavored, "pretend coffee" drinks like swiss-vanilla-mocha-chocolate cream, so if they can help my memory, that's great news.
And, for the millions out there who love their daily coffee, this is the perfect reason to keep that morning routine. (Not that you need a reason.)
According to a recent study published in 2014 conducted at Johns Hopkins University, caffeine does improve memory. The study involved 160 male and female participants who were shown images to view. Five minutes later they were given a 200mg caffeine pill or a placebo (fake). Twenty-four hours later, the participants who received the pill with the caffeine in it showed an improvement in their memory of those images compared to those who received a placebo pill. According to the researchers, administering the pill after the images were shown demonstrates that the caffeine improved the participants' memory, rather than other possibilities including that the improvement was due to increased concentration or focus.
The journal Neuroscience found that when older adults consumed caffeine, they demonstrated improved working memory compared to those without the caffeine.
A third study found that bees who consume caffeine are more likely to remember floral scents than bees who consumed sucrose. (Of course, the question with this type of study is whether that translates to humans or not.)
One study measured the combination of caffeine and glucose and found that when administered together, the participants' reaction time, verbal memory and attention (concentration) were improved when compared to those who received only the caffeine or the glucose, as well as to those who received the placebo.
Caffeine may also improve our spatial memory. A study compared regular caffeine consumers to those who did not consumer caffeine on a frequent basis. The results showed that when both groups consumed caffeine, their map memorizing ability (a measure of their spatial memory) improved. Interestingly, those who were habitual caffeine consumers showed less of a benefit from the caffeine dose as compared to those who infrequently consumed caffeine.
Only from Coffee?
One study involved women older than age 65 who had cardiovascular disease (and thus a higher risk of cognitive decline related to vascular dementia). The study measured their caffeine intake and performed cognitive assessments at regular intervals over five years. The results found that the women who had higher levels of caffeine intake, specifically from coffee- not from colas or tea- performed better on cognitive tests than those who consumed less caffeine.
What about younger people and caffeine? Some researchers set out to determine if energy drinks, which contain high levels of caffeine, improve cognitive functioning. While they increase wakefulness, participants (ages15-18) who consumed energy drinks did not show any significant difference in their cognitive function when compared to those who drank a placebo.
Want a different way to ingest caffeine beside coffee? According to one research study, caffeinated herbal gum was shown to be effective in improving memory.
Does Caffeine Affect the Memory of Extroverts Differently?
Extroverted? Another study found that working memory was significantly improved with caffeine consumption, but only saw this benefit in adults who were extroverted. A second study aimed to replicate this finding. The researchers in this study found that serial recall and memory of those who were extroverted and consumed caffeine improved, but also found that caffeine improved the speed of reaction and ability to receive new information.
Or, Is It a Myth?
Other studies cast doubt on the benefits of caffeine for our memories. One such study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, reviewed the research conducted thus far on caffeine and cognition and concluded that caffeine's benefits are limited to moderately increasing our focus, mood and concentration, rather than our memories.
Conclusion and Cautions
There is an extensive amount of research on caffeine and its effect on memory and other cognitive processes. The results vary significantly, but there does appear to be general support of the idea that caffeine boosts cognitive functioning. Some research indicates that the source of the caffeine is important, showing a benefit from coffee but not other sources.
Finally, a caution, lest you decide that you can consume endless amounts of caffeine based on this short summary of research alone. For some people, there are health risks with even low levels of caffeine, and very high levels have been shown to have the possibility of being detrimental to your health.
**Please note that the information included on this website and linked to both on and from this site is not medical advice and is for guidance and information only. I have made every effort to report information that is medically accurate and scientifically researched, but this is not a substitute for care and guidance from a physician.**
Appetite. 2011 Aug;57(1):303-7. Herbal-caffeinated chewing gum, but not bubble gum, improves aspects of memory. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21570431
Biological Psychology. 2010 Dec;85(3):496-8. Caffeine enhances working memory for extraverts. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20816912
Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2013 Oct 17;7:694. Caffeine promotes global spatial processing in habitual and non-habitual caffeine consumers. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24146646
Johns Hopkins University. January 12, 2014. It’s All Coming Back to Me Now: JHU Researchers Find Caffeine Enhances Memory. http://releases.jhu.edu/2014/01/12/its-all-coming-back-to-me-now-jhu-researchers-find-caffeine-enhances-memory/
Human Psychopharmacology. 2010 Jun-Jul;25(4):310-7. Effects of caffeine and glucose, alone and combined, on cognitive performance. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20521321
Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.Volume 35, Number 2 / 2013. Caffeine and Cognitive Decline in Elderly Women at High Vascular Risk
Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 20 (2010). Is Caffeine a Cognitive Enhancer? http://iospress.metapress.com/content/lw1630245745v088/fulltext.html
Journal of Psychopharmacology. 2013 Jan;27(1):71-6. Caffeine, extraversion and working memory. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23015541
Nature Neuroscience. Published online. 12 January 2014. Post-study caffeine administration enhances memory consolidation in humans. http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nn.3623.html#correction1
Neuroscience. 2013 Oct 10;250:364-71.Acute caffeine administration impact on working memory-related brain activation and functional connectivity in the elderly: a BOLD and perfusion MRI study. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23876323
Science. 8 March 2013: Vol. 339 no. 6124 pp. 1202-1204. Caffeine in Floral Nectar Enhances a Pollinator's Memory of Reward. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6124/1202
Tijdschrift voor Psychiatrie. 2013;55(1):57-62. [The effect of energy drinks on the cognitive performance of adolescents]. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23315697