As we return from the lazy Christmassy days of curling up in front of a log fire into the melee of university deadlines, parties and 9ams, it is no wonder we find ourselves stocking up on Starbucks and boxes of Pro Plus to carry us through. Happily, researchers from the University of California and the Johns Hopkins University have come along to tell us that this is not necessarily a bad thing, and could in fact help improve long-term memory.
At both universities, caffeine was administered to 160 adults who normally consume only minimal amounts of caffeine. Subjects were asked to perform simple cognitive tests such as image recognition. These tests were run twice, with the participants taking caffeine hits either before or after completing the tests. Taking the pill after the test showed that caffeine did indeed improve consolidation of memories when shown images again at a later date, as it wasn’t present in their bodies during the initial learning process.
Interestingly, taking the pill before the exam had exactly the same effects as afterwards and those administered with the placebo pill showed markedly reduced recall by comparison, which suggests that caffeine really does have a positive effect on consolidation of newly learned information. This lead Michael Yassa of the UOC to conclude that caffeine must improve long term memory by strengthening consolidation of recent memories. “This doesn’t mean people should only drink coffee after they’ve studied, and not before,” says Yassa. “I think you would get the boost regardless.”
Both studies were in agreement as to the optimum amount of caffeine needed to help you power through that last-minute revision session: 200mg will give a maximum boost to the grey matter, without the jitters and headaches typical after too many jaegerbombs. To give you a rough idea, this is the equivalent of two espressos or a quadruple shot of coffee in a latte. Any less than this, though, and the effects aren’t nearly as pronounced: “Thus,” Daniel Borota of JHU concludes, “we conclude that a dose of at least 200mg is required to observe the enhancing effect of caffeine on consolidation of memory.”
Bear in mind that not only do two espressos add up to a hefty £4 at Bison Coffee Shop, but they also increase the risk of heart problems and disrupted sleeping patterns. Nonetheless, in moderation caffeine is another useful ingredient to add to the arsenal of equipment to help us get through our degrees.
Perhaps once the mechanism of memory consolidation by caffeine is better understood we can manipulate this drug further to our advantage, and no longer need to dread the occasional all-nighter.