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Rise and Grind – the Chemical Effect of Caffeine on the Brain
We know from recent research that there’s some good news and bad news about our coffee habits, both for our brains as well as our overall health. After you drink coffee, the caffeine is absorbed into your bloodstream. From there, it travels to your brain.
- Caffeine blocks an inhibitory neurotransmitter in your brain, called adenosine, which thus causes a stimulatory effect. Adenosine is known as a “neuromodulator” and when it binds to its receptors, neural activity slows down, and you feel sleepy. Adenosine thus facilitates sleep and dilates the blood vessels, probably to ensure good oxygenation during sleep. However when this neurotransmitter is blocked, the amount of other neurotransmitters like norepinephrine and dopamine increases, leading to enhanced firing of neurons.
- A few excitatory chemicals including the neurotransmitters dopamine and glutamate make an appearance. Because caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors, they are freed to stimulate and excite with less interference. Additional effects are related to the release of adrenaline and the neurotransmitter serotonin. This chemical cacophony delivers the euphoric jolt we’re conditioned to expect roughly 3o minutes after drinking our first cuppa!
- In other words, caffeine keeps the doors blocked while the brain’s home-grown stimulators and alerters are allowed to do what they do, facilitated by our number one drug of choice, caffeine.
- Recent research has shown that caffeine can have a longer-term brain effect too, called “brain entropy”. Long-term consumption of caffeine appears to improve cognitive performance, verbal memory, and may also protect against cognitive decline, such as what you may see in a patient with Alzheimers or Dementia. This research suggests that caffeine contributes to an increase of information processing capacity in the resting brain, meaning that caffeine may provide an ongoing boost to brain processing beyond the brief period of it’s immediate effects.
Many controlled studies in humans show that coffee improves various other aspects of brain function, including memory, mood, vigilance, energy levels, reaction times and general mental function.