Study Reveals Caffeine Can Enhance Memory (But There’s a Catch!)

caffeine improves memory
Hand over the coffee and no one gets hurt.
Photo credit: H. Neal

I had a study tradition in college. It involved loading up books into my Greek-letter emblazoned too-small-for-textbooks shoulder bag, trekking over to the newly Wifi-enabled student center, and holing up at a kiosk in a rarely used study room. But not before I made one unavoidably important stop along the way: the student marketplace. The one where you could use your meal plan to buy all kinds of snacks and drinks you didn’t need. The one I used almost exclusively to buy pre-packaged sushi and caffeinated beverages of any and all kinds. I typically went with the canned double shot of espresso, but I wasn’t exclusive. Sometimes it’d be coffee because the heat inevitably never worked in those sequestered study rooms. Occasionally it’d be an oversized energy drink because they’d just hit the market, and they were cool. But most of the time, it’d be a tiny can of too much caffeine. Or two.

Then I’d study, and I’d drink caffeine in whatever the chosen form of the day was, and I’d study, and then I’d ace my test and promptly forget all the material I crammed into my brain in a caffeine-induced, coma-like state the night before.

Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Now, a number of years later (I won’t tell you how many), I rely on coffee to get my butt moving at the pre-dawn hour my son likes to call morning. My, how things have changed. But there really was something to that study method. The caffeine not only got me through the cram session, but it helped me remember all the endless information I was poring over. Only I was doing it a little bit wrong. Apparently to get the real memory-enhancing benefits you’re supposed to study first, drink later. (Caffeine that is, not alcohol. That will make you promptly forget every last word.)

A study in the journal Nature Neuroscience revealed that caffeine can actually enhance long-term memory and our ability to recall things. “We report for the first time a specific effect of caffeine on reducing forgetting over 24 hours … we conclude that caffeine enhances consolidation of long-term memories in humans,” the researchers wrote. This study in particular showed these results with consuming caffeine afterward was beneficial. Researchers found subjects who took 200-300 mg of caffeine in pill form after being shown cards with pictures on them were able to identify what pictures were similar but different the next day better than those that received a placebo. While that sounds kind of confusing to me, it essentially means it helped the subjects with their ability to recall information — pull it up from the depths of their memory drudges. That would certainly be most helpful when studying for a test, but for now, I’m going to stick with caffeine’s ability to make me a coherent human being before the crack of dawn like my son so enthusiastically demands.

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