A study from Johns Hopkins reveals that caffeine, while keeping us alert and full of energy, also enhances memory short-term.
Here’s what happened:
The researchers showed a series of images to subjects—people intentionally picked because they did not regularly consume caffeine. Five minutes after they were finished viewing the images, each individual in the test group received 200 milligrams of caffeine (equal to one cup of strong coffee), while the others received a placebo.
Twenty-four hours later, subjects viewed images again and had to distinguish if each image was new, the same as one they had seen the day before, or similar but not the same.
The result? Those who had the caffeine tablet were able to correctly identify more images as “similar” instead of erroneously saying they were the “same.”
Why did that happen?
Instead of testing simple memory, subjects had to use a deeper memory technique known as pattern separation. In other words, they weren’t just remembering a list of items, but distinguishing between the same and similar objects.
The caffeine, in combination with this deeper memory technique, allowed for more correct answers.
This study is different from other studies in that it administered the caffeine after the memory work had already been done. While caffeine may not strengthen long-term memory, it certainly seems to help with remembering something 24 hours later.
What do other studies say?
Other studies continue to debate caffeine’s role in memory. A study from the National Institute on Aging published in the Journal of Nutrition agrees with caffeine’s effect on mental health, though not necessarily your memory.
Meanwhile, an article from the National Center for Biotechnology Information suggests caffeine may occasionally help with memory-related tasks, but may also hinder it, and has no effect on long-term memory.
What does this mean for you?
A bit of caffeine may very well be a great support to keeping your mind alert and your memory sharp—especially when you are trying to remember something short-term, like for a test the next day.
However, it is important to know your body and how it responds to caffeine. Using caffeine every day may decrease its helpfulness in short-term memory, or may require a higher dosage to be effective (FDA).
Also, keep in mind other effects caffeine may have on the body, such as headaches, increased blood pressure, and dehydration (FDA).
Of course, no one thing in and of itself is a cure-all for memory loss. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and engaging in a variety of “brain” activities is always the best way to go!