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This Is Your Brain on Coffee

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  • This Is Your Brain on Coffee

    Interesting group of studies that look into caffeine use and its effects on neurology, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

    This Is Your Brain on Coffee
    WELL JUNE 6, 2013, 12:01 AM
    This column appears in the June 9 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

    For thousands of years, coffee has been one of the two or three most popular beverages on earth. But it’s only recently that scientists are figuring out that the drink has notable health benefits. In one large-scale epidemiological study from last year, researchers primarily at the National Cancer Institute parsed health information from more than 400,000 volunteers, ages 50 to 71, who were free of major diseases at the study’s start in 1995. By 2008, more than 50,000 of the participants had died. But men who reported drinking two or three cups of coffee a day were 10 percent less likely to have died than those who didn’t drink coffee, while women drinking the same amount had 13 percent less risk of dying during the study. It’s not clear exactly what coffee had to do with their longevity, but the correlation is striking.

    Other recent studies have linked moderate coffee drinking — the equivalent of three or four 5-ounce cups of coffee a day or a single venti-size Starbucks — with more specific advantages: a reduction in the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, basal cell carcinoma (the most common skin cancer), prostate cancer, oral cancer and breast cancer recurrence.

    Perhaps most consequential, animal experiments show that caffeine may reshape the biochemical environment inside our brains in ways that could stave off dementia. In a 2012 experiment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, mice were briefly starved of oxygen, causing them to lose the ability to form memories. Half of the mice received a dose of caffeine that was the equivalent of several cups of coffee. After they were reoxygenated, the caffeinated mice regained their ability to form new memories 33 percent faster than the uncaffeinated. Close examination of the animals’ brain tissue showed that the caffeine disrupted the action of adenosine, a substance inside cells that usually provides energy, but can become destructive if it leaks out when the cells are injured or under stress. The escaped adenosine can jump-start a biochemical cascade leading to inflammation, which can disrupt the function of neurons, and potentially contribute to neurodegeneration or, in other words, dementia.

    In a 2012 study of humans, researchers from the University of South Florida and the University of Miami tested the blood levels of caffeine in older adults with mild cognitive impairment, or the first glimmer of serious forgetfulness, a common precursor of Alzheimer’s disease, and then re-evaluated them two to four years later. Participants with little or no caffeine circulating in their bloodstreams were far more likely to have progressed to full-blown Alzheimer’s than those whose blood indicated they’d had about three cups’ worth of caffeine.

    There’s still much to be learned about the effects of coffee. “We don’t know whether blocking the action of adenosine is sufficient” to prevent or lessen the effects of dementia, says Dr. Gregory G. Freund, a professor of pathology at the University of Illinois who led the 2012 study of mice. It is also unclear whether caffeine by itself provides the benefits associated with coffee drinking or if coffee contains other valuable ingredients. In a 2011 study by the same researchers at the University of South Florida, for instance, mice genetically bred to develop Alzheimer’s and then given caffeine alone did not fare as well on memory tests as those provided with actual coffee. Nor is there any evidence that mixing caffeine with large amounts of sugar, as in energy drinks, is healthful. But a cup or three of coffee “has been popular for a long, long time,” Dr. Freund says, “and there’s probably good reasons for that.”
    Last edited by Tina; June 6, 2013, 11:58 PM.
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  • #2
    Re: This Is Your Brain on Coffee

    I have a friend whose son has adhd and she gives him coffee to help him focus and she swears it works. I heard that women should not drink caffeine while pregnant and I did not drink any caffeine or eat chocolate while I was pregnant. I heard it would lower the birth weight of the baby and mess w/brain developement. I also heard that caffeine would stunt the growth of children and I won't let my son drink coffee. I wonder if any of that is true? Will caffeine or coffee stunt the growth of a child? My friends son is on the shorter side but who knows if that is from coffee?
    I know this article isn't talking about coffee treating kids w/adhd but I was wondering if anyone knew if coffee will stunt kids growth?


    • #3
      Re: This Is Your Brain on Coffee

      I would love to drink coffee. It tastes great, and it sounds like it has great health benefits. But I can't drink it -- never have been able to -- because it makes me ridiculously tense and uncomfortable and brings on tics.

      I'd be interested to know how many people out here with TS can handle caffeine without making their tics worse temporarily?


      • #4
        Re: This Is Your Brain on Coffee

        Originally posted by Geneva View Post
        I have a friend whose son has adhd and she gives him coffee to help him focus and she swears it works.
        DISCLAIMER: I'm not a medical professional or anything remotely like that, so take the following with a large grain of salt

        In small doses, I could see that potentially working quite well. Someone once said to me that they feel that ADHD isn't an inability to focus, it's that the brain is focusing on too many things at once. A very small amount of caffeine might help keep the brain focused on something for a bit longer.

        Actually, that also reminds me of something that was mentioned at the conference this year. One of the talks was about sleep disorders, and it was mentioned that a lack of sleep can cause symptoms that look a lot like ADHD, because children tend to self-stimulate when they get tired. Maybe the caffeine is replacing that need?


        • #5
          Re: This Is Your Brain on Coffee

          Coffee is one of the few habits with little in the way of bad side effects and positive benefits. The only bad effects that I am aware of are some hormonal system imbalances in certain women, some problems in people with heart problems, and it can make it more difficult to deal with anxiety issues. I can believe that it helps with attention related issues and I was a huge coffee drinker all though my time at the university.

          That anxiety connection is what made me cut down a lot. I'm working with my psychologist on changing how my emotions relate to things and caffeine makes this process more difficult because it does alter how your perception is shaped. Anything that alters perception is messing with systems that are normally meant to be activated when things happen in your environment and are instead begin activated by chemistry.

          As for caffeine during pregnancy I can see reasons for concern because there are reports showing that it does have effects on the unborn in animals and people, though the significance of these effects is still being studied. As for paranoia it's worth considering that the sheer amount of caffeine use in our history so I can't really say that any effect is "good" or "bad". Caffeine is technically an "adenosine receptor antagonist" and there is always the possibility that such receptors are involved in developmental processes in the unborn and developing children alike. Such processes include attentional systems and it's becoming pretty clear that cognition can be pre-programmed by what the unborn are exposed to through maternal circulation. Such effects are why smoking during pregnancy is a problem. It's useful for the unborn to get pre-programmed for the environments that the parents (and even grandparents) get exposed to and it's being clear that a lot of the drugs that we take can interact with these pre-programming systems and I'm of the opinion that 20 years from now we will be a lot more paranoid about what sorts of things we expose a mother and her pregnancy to.