A team of ICVS researchers saw their work about coffee consumption and its effects on the brain published in the journal Frontiers of Behavioral Neuroscience.
The researchers found that pure caffeine only partially mimicked the effects of drinking a cup of coffee, according to the study, recently published in the journal Frontiers of Behavioral Neuroscience.
While caffeine boosted areas of the brain that make you feel more alert, coffee had additional effects on areas of the brain that affect working memory and goal-directed behavior.
“There is a common expectation that coffee increases alertness and psychomotor functioning. By better understanding the mechanisms underlying a biological phenomenon, paths are opened to explore the factors that can modulate it and even the potential benefits of this mechanism”, explains Nuno Sousa, co-author of the study.
People who drank at least one cup of coffee a day were recruited and asked to refrain from eating or drinking caffeinated beverages for at least three hours before the study.
Participants’ social and demographic data were then collected, and they underwent two brief brain MRI scans – one before and another 30 minutes after taking caffeine or drinking a standard cup of coffee.
During the scans, participants were instructed to relax and let their minds wander.
The scientists found that consuming both coffee and caffeine led to decreased nerve connectivity in the brain’s default mode network, which is involved in the processes of introspection and self-reflection.
The researchers said this shift could indicate that people are more prepared to switch from resting to working on tasks.
However, they said drinking coffee may have additional benefits of increasing connectivity in the brain’s more advanced nerve network control view and other parts involved in working memory, cognitive control and goal-directed behavior.
These effects were not found when participants took only caffeine.
In other words, the researchers said, if someone wants to not only feel alert but ready to go, caffeine alone may not do the trick.
“Acute coffee consumption decreased functional connectivity between brain regions in the default mode network, a network that is associated with self-referential processes when participants are at rest,” said Maria Picó-Pérez, co-author of the study.
“Subjects were more action-ready and alert to external stimuli after drinking coffee,” she said.
Citing a limitation of the study, the researchers said they were unable to identify benefits that coffee drinkers claim could be due to relief from withdrawal symptoms.
The new findings also suggest that while caffeinated beverages share some of the effects of coffee, there are still some special benefits of drinking coffee.
This can include factors such as the specific smell and taste of the beverage or the psychological expectation associated with drinking that beverage.