Many coffee drinkers will tell you that there’s something about that morning cup that other sources of caffeine just can’t match.
Researchers in Portugal recently set out to investigate that idea: is caffeine solely responsible for making people feel more alert, or are other parts of the morning ritual (perhaps the smell or taste of coffee) triggering that energetic feeling? ?
«If you listen to these people, they usually say that they need to have coffee in the morning to get ready. We wanted to understand the brain mechanisms and the pattern of functional connectivity that would justify this claim,» said Nuno Sousa, one of the study participants. authors and professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Minho in Portugal.
The researchers recruited 83 people who drank at least one cup of coffee a day to undergo MRI scans so they could look at the participants’ brain activity.
Of that total, 47 people were scanned before they had their morning cup of joe, then again 30 minutes after they had a cup. The other 36 were simply given caffeine diluted in hot water, without coffee, and had the same types of MRIs before and after consuming the beverage.
The results, posted this week in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, suggest that, in fact, certain changes in brain activity can be attributed to coffee alone, while others can also be attributed to caffeine.
The scans revealed that both groups, those who consumed caffeine and those who drank coffee, had decreased activity in a part of the brain that puts people in a resting state. That indicated that people were more ready to start their days and engage with others after consuming either beverage. Decades of research have already shown that caffeine, a psychostimulantit can help people feel more aroused and alert.
However, MRIs showed that drinking coffee increased activity in parts of the brain involved in short-term memory, attention and focus, while caffeine intake alone did not.
The researchers theorized that the sight, smell, or taste of coffee may help people feel alert, regardless of the caffeine content.
«The pleasure that is given to a person who likes coffee in the morning is actually part of almost a ritual that is also important for that person to feel like ‘I’m ready for the day,'» Sousa said. .
He added that people who don’t drink coffee regularly may not experience the same effect.
Mark Mattson, an associate professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who was not involved in the research, said the findings were not surprising, since people form associations with particular sensory experiences over time, which in turn can influence your future reactions
«Makes sense, right? Coffee has a taste and a smell, so when you drink coffee, you’re activating regions of the brain that are involved in coffee taste perception, smell perception,» Mattson said.
Dr. Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, said the sight of coffee can trigger positive memories or make a person think they’re about to feel more awake.
«The visual impact of coffee is powerful,» he said. «It could be like, ‘Oh, I think now there’s something to give me energy. I’m going to have something to give me that second wind I need at work or school.'»
That’s different from a placebo effect, he added, since the coffee continues to induce a physical and perhaps an emotional response.
The three researchers said it’s also possible that naturally occurring chemicals found in coffee may have independent effects on brain activity in addition to those of caffeine. A group of chemicals in coffee called epicatechins, for example, have been shown to improve memory in animal studies.
Sousa said the goal of the study is not to influence anyone’s coffee drinking habits.
“We are not saying that coffee is good or that coffee is bad,” he said.
Mattson also pointed out that the study has several limitations. For one, the MRIs measured blood flow, but caffeine can restrict blood flow, so the scans may not give a clear picture of its impact on brain activity. Mattson also noted that the study did not include people who drank decaffeinated coffee, which may have helped distinguish the effects of coffee versus caffeine on the brain.
Meanwhile, Naidoo noted that most of the study participants were women, so there could be gender-based differences in how people’s brains respond to coffee.
But one point the researchers agreed on is that coffee is a healthier way to consume caffeine than energy drinks or soft drinks.
«It does have caffeine, but it’s also very high in antioxidants and some polyphenols,» Naidoo said, referring to natural compounds that can lower blood pressure, kill cancer cells and protect against diabetes by improving metabolism.
«There is also another substance called trigonelin that gives coffee the aroma, the taste, the bitterness, but it also has antibacterial and antiviral properties,» Naidoo said.