Tag Archives: caffeine

A Lean, Mean, Caffeine Machine

If you spot me around campus, odds are I have either a cup of coffee or a travel mug filled to the brim with a steaming cup of java. In class today, my professor asked me to do the math and figure out how many cups of coffee I’ve had so far this semester, and the number came out to around 315 with a margin of error of around 15. I grind my own beans, I use a French press, I revel in my knowledge of how to make the best cup of coffee (a very true statement). But how does coffee get us going? What is it about caffeine that makes college kids so dependent on the stuff that it’s almost like an addiction? Look no further, you caffeinated heaps of procrastination, because I’ve done the research for you!

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Meet Adenosine. Adenosine is not your friend. A study shows the effects of adenosine on the brain and how it is a part of our daily lives. To sum it up, our brains slowly produce more and more adenosine as the day drags on. As this neurotransmitter binds to its receptors, we begin to feel more relaxed, even tired. Adenosine and melatonin work hand in hand to promote sleep, so in a way, I suppose adenosine actually is your friend.

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This little molecule we know all too well. Behold, caffeine! Its (relatively) similar structure to adenosine means that it acts as an inhibitor to the adenosine receptors. As the caffeine binds to these receptors, the adenosine cannot and therefore we don’t have the calming effects from it and therefore become more jittery and less tired. The brain also sees these somewhat foreign molecules as a threat and triggers the adrenal gland to start producing more adrenaline to attack them. This increase in adrenaline also allows us to become more alert and causes the dependency effect.

What does this mean for cognition? Well, since caffeine imitates the effect we receive from sleeping, we basically have to look at the effects of getting enough sleep and clearing away all the accumulated adenosine. Studies show that sleep deprivation takes away from your cognitive abilities, including, but not limited to, slower reaction times, reduced fine motor skills, inability to focus attention, the list goes on, really. So when we drink caffeine, we prevent or slow down those effects and that allows us to become the A-student we’ve always wanted to be.

There is a downside to every college student’s moderate to severe (to lethal) dependency upon caffeine, however. As more and more caffeine binds to the adenosine receptors and the actual adenosine molecules can’t be absorbed, the brain creates more receptors to accommodate for this change. As a result, you end up becoming more tired in the long run because your brain requires more caffeine to have the same inhibitory effect. In fact, a study conducted by Bertil Freedhold that I couldn’t actually obtain because I don’t have a Google Books account but read the abstract for tells us that after a week-long dosage of caffeine to lab rats, the number of adenosine receptors in their tiny little brains was increased by about 25%.

So, when you reach for that 316th cup of coffee, take into consideration the fact that you’ll actually end up being more tired in the long run. Just a thought.