Caffeine perks up short-term memory, researchers find

Health & Fitness


Caffeine is the most widely used stimulant in the world, consumed in coffee, tea and soft drinks by hundreds of millions of people to get started in the morning and as a pick-me-up during the day. That people like the jolt they get from caffeine is no secret, but what caffeine does in the brain has been unknown.

Now Austrian researchers using brain imaging technology have discovered that caffeine perks up the part of the brain involved in short-term memory, which helps us focus attention on the tasks at hand.

Americans seem most in need of concentrating their thoughts, since our average daily consumption of 236 milligrams of caffeine, equivalent to more than 4.5 cups of coffee, is three times the world average.

"Almost all of us drink coffee or something with caffeine in it, and we know why: because we want to be more awake or feel better," said Dr. Florian Koppelstaetter of the Medical University Innsbruck in Austria. "We wanted to know what effect one to two cups of coffee would have on short-term memory."

Reporting at the Radiological Society of North America meeting in Chicago earlier this month, Koppelstaetter said that functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, was used to measure brain function in 15 healthy volunteers before and after consuming coffee.

The findings revealed increased activity in the frontal lobe, where working memory is centered, and the anterior cingulum, which controls attention, in volunteers after consuming 100 milligrams of caffeine, the equivalent of about two cups of coffee. These areas showed no increased activity when the subjects drank the same fluid without caffeine.

"The increased activity means you are more able to focus," he said. "You have more attention, and your task management is better."

Short-term memory lasts about 30 to 45 seconds and stores a small amount of information for a limited amount of time. It's the kind of memory used to look up a telephone number and remember it long enough to dial it. Long-term memory, on the other hand, stores an unlimited amount of information for an unlimited amount of time.

"What is exciting is that by means of MRI we are able to see that caffeine exerts increases in neuronal activity in distinct parts of the brain going along with changes in behavior," Koppelstaetter said.

Ronald Kotulak writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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