Caffeinated Responses

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Imagine it’s 1:00am and you have a whole lot of studying to do for a final tomorrow. Or, it’s 8:00am in the morning and you have that early morning meeting with your adviser. What do you rely on?

If you answered coffee, then you are correct and we are on the same frequency so far….

So, let’s talk about coffee!!! Humans are not biologically designed to stay awake two nights in a row. Coffee, the elixir of life, does make achieving this impossible act possible. But, how??

Well, caffeine, the primary component of coffee affects the brain biochemistry in a way that we can function without giving our over-worked brain a break.

Caffeine is a lipophilic molecule and hence capable of crossing the blood brain barrier. It also shares structural similarities to adenosine. Heard of it before? Well, that’s because adenosine along with three phosphate groups form ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate), the energy source for cells.

Adenosine binds to receptors on the surface of cells in the central nervous system, in particular the A1 adenosine receptor. When adenosine binds to the receptor, it blocks the release of Dopamine. Dopamine is a molecule that when released into the blood stream decreases fatigue and increases spontaneous behavioral responses.

Now, caffeine (because of its structural similarity to adenosine) can also bind to the A1 adenosine receptor, but the effect that it has on binding will be different, because in the end it is a different molecule.

On binding to the adenosine receptor, caffeine facilitates the release of Dopamine in the circulatory system, which makes us less sleepy.  Research has shown that caffeine also affects epinephrine (adrenaline) and serotonin.  Epinephrine is a hormone that plays a crucial role in the famous “fight or flight response” and serotonin also known as the “happy hormone" is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and sleep.

The activity of caffeine is entirely dependent on its ability to block adenosine receptors. I say block because it literally blocks the receptor and does not allow adenosine molecule to bind it. But, if adenosine is already bound to its receptors, caffeine also has the ability to remove the bound adenosine first before binding it.

But that’s not all. People who think that the only benefit of coffee is that it keeps you awake; get ready to be proven wrong. A group at Johns Hopkins University published a paper in Nature Neuroscience showing a positive effect of caffeine on memory consolidation.

Hippocampus is the part of the brain involved in the process of memory consolidation. When we learn something new, the data is stored in the hippocampus for up to a week after that the hippocampus distributes the memory to the neo-cortex for permanent storage.

In the study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, participants were asked to look at images of objects. After that they were administered either 200mg of caffeine/placebo. After 24 hours, participants in both subgroups were asked to recognize images that they were shown the previous day.  Results from the study show that long-term memory formation is enhanced in humans after consumption of coffee.

My advice, if you are trying to memorize something for your finals, drink coffee after the memorization attempt, this way you will increase your chances of remembering the content for at least 24 hours!!! 

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