A new study suggests caffeine may help strengthen long-term memory and act as a “memory enhancer.” The study is the first of its kind to look at the effect of caffeine on long-term memory, and its findings could factor into new treatments for cognitive decline in older adults.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University conducted a double-blind trial that had participants analyze a set of images. After the session, the volunteers were given either a placebo or a 200-milligram caffeine tablet (equivalent to what's in one cup of strong coffee). The doses were administered five minutes after the subjects studied the images, followed by additional tablets one hour, three hours and 24 hours after the initial session.
The next day, participants were asked to look at a set of images that contained images from the previous day, new images and images similar to those find in the original set from the day before. Researchers wanted to test pattern separation, the brain’s ability to determine what makes similar images different. According to the press release, pattern separation indicates memory retention and serves as something that would test the participants’ long-term memory.
Researcher Michael Yassa, from Johns Hopkins, said in a statement, “However, using these items requires the brain to make a more difficult discrimination—what we call pattern separation, which seems to be the process that is enhanced by caffeine, in our case.” According to the researcher, more members of the coffee group were able to correctly identify similar images compared to the placebo group.
According to the study's abstract, caffeine could improve memory consolidation, the brain's ability to convert short-term memories into long-term ones, but it did not serve as a test for memory retrieval.
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Most often consumed in coffee or soft drinks, caffeine has been a popular stimulant, increasing alertness, concentration and focus, notes the Mayo Clinic. Too much caffeine is not a good thing and overconsumption could increase the risk of heart problems, such as heart contraction rates and increased heart rate; cause loss of sleep; and raise blood pressure. A recent study found excessive coffee consumption in individuals under the age of 55 was associated with a 50 percent increase in mortality risk. Drinking the right amount of coffee could increase your longevity by a small margin.
For the researchers, this is just the first step in their caffeine study. Yassa hopes to learn more about the mechanism behind coffee's effect on long-term memory. Future studies could include imaging of the hippocampus, the "switchbox for all short- and long-term memories," and provide new insights on the effect of caffeine on Alzheimer's. A recent study revealed a preventative effect of caffeine on Alzheimer's progression.