Coffee Lovers Rejoice: Your Coffee Experience Enhances Brain Readiness

Coffee Lovers Rejoice: Your Coffee Experience Enhances Brain Readiness

It is well known that caffeine promotes arousal and supports several aspects of cognitive function. But how is this associated with brain network activity? A 2023 study by a group of researchers from Portugal assessed whether the subjective feelings of alertness and enhanced cognitive performance associated with consuming coffee manifested at the level of neuronal functional connectivity. Here’s what the study revealed.

Key Takeaways

  • Caffeine reduced the connectivity of the Default Mode Network (DMN) at rest
  • The reduced DMN connectivity at rest after coffee suggests a higher preparedness to switch from resting to task-related processing 
  • Caffeine also prepares for action by influencing connectivity in brain regions associated with the initiation, execution, and cognitive control of movements 

The Effects of Coffee and Caffeine on the Connectivity of the Default Mode Network at Rest

Coffee is one of the most consumed beverages in the world. Most people drink it for the stimulant actions of caffeine and the subjective feelings of wakefulness, alertness, mental energy, and increased productivity that drinking coffee produces. 

It is well known that caffeine is a psychostimulant compound. Caffeine acts primarily (but not exclusively) by blocking adenosine receptors in the brain. Because adenosine, in general, has an inhibitory effect in the central nervous system (CNS), this property of caffeine results in a stimulant action. Caffeine also promotes acetylcholine and dopamine signaling and brain metabolism. The consequence of these neurochemical actions is a support of several aspects of cognitive performance, including attention, vigilance, information processing, executive function, and resistance to mental fatigue

Although these mechanisms of action and benefits of caffeine are well documented, information about the impact of coffee intake on the whole-brain network activity is still limited. 

To fill this gap, a recent study by a group of Portuguese researchers explored the effects of coffee consumption on resting-state network functional connectivity, which is an fMRI measure of brain activity when a subject is not actively engaging in a cognitive task. More specifically, the study aimed to explore the differences in resting-state network functional connectivity before and after coffee consumption in a group of habitual coffee drinkers (who drank a minimum of one cup of coffee per day). 

To achieve a resting state, during each fMRI scanning participants were asked to remain with eyes closed, relaxed, and let their minds wander freely. Each subject was scanned twice: once at baseline before drinking coffee (and after abstaining from consuming caffeinated beverages or food for at least 3 h) and again 30 min after coffee intake. Their coffee contained 85 mg of caffeine over 100 ml of water, with no added sugar. In addition, to better understand the specific impact of caffeine, another analysis was conducted in another group of habitual coffee drinkers, which instead of coffee were given the same amount of caffeine in the same amount of hot water (so none of the other compounds of coffee).

The analysis of resting-state brain network activity revealed that connectivity of the posterior default mode network (DMN) was decreased after drinking coffee, specifically in a brain region called precuneus. This decrease was also observed when participants received only caffeine, meaning it could be attributed to caffeine. The DMN is a brain network known to be active during wakeful rest, mind-wandering, and daydreaming. The DMN becomes more active when we are less focused on what is happening around us. Importantly, activity within the DMN is also necessary for the brain to respond to external stimuli and has been associated, for example, with the level of detail in ongoing thought during active working memory maintenance, i.e. while holding information in mind. The precuneus, a core node of the DMN, and one of the most connected regions of the cortex, is involved in self-consciousness, episodic memory, and visuospatial imagery. The precuneus is also connected to areas of the reticular activating system, which has a key role in arousal, which caffeine is well-known to promote. The decreased connectivity at rest after coffee and caffeine in the precuneus suggested a higher preparedness to switch from resting to task-related processing (i.e., being focused) after coffee intake. 

The study found that drinking coffee (85 mg of caffeine) decreases connectivity in the default mode network of the brain, making individuals more prepared to switch from rest to task mode.

Another finding of the study was that coffee decreased functional connectivity between the somatosensory/motor networks and the prefrontal cortex, with a similar (but not significant) trend being observed with caffeine only. These areas are associated with the initiation, execution, and cognitive control of movements through movement planning, coordination, and command. This result was interpreted as an indication that coffee, only partially due to caffeine’s activity, prepares for action, which is in line with gains in psychomotor efficiency experienced after the intake of caffeinated coffee.

Another observation was that coffee, but not caffeine only, increased the connectivity in nodes of the higher visual network, involved in visual processing, and in the right executive control network (RECN), involved in high-level cognitive functions such as working memory, cognitive control, and goal-directed behavior. The fact that caffeine had no impact on these regions suggests that these effects were likely promoted by other components of coffee rather than caffeine. This is an interesting finding that adds to the growing awareness that the benefits of coffee extend beyond those of caffeine, even in the support of cognitive function. For example, coffee contains several polyphenols with health-promoting properties, such as chlorogenic acid, which has been shown to have neuromodulatory and neuroprotective properties

This study thus revealed how caffeine’s benefits on cognitive function are mirrored in the brain’s functional connectivity, contributing to a better understanding of the nootropic actions of caffeine. 

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