Coffee for your mind: how does caffeine affect your cognition?

This publication was made possible by the joint efforts of MyWayDNA team. Thank you all, especially Alex Shynkarenko for putting together all relevant data and scientific facts, and Oleksandra Alokhina for helping to create the main concept of the article and superb coordination of publishing process. You guys are great! :)

The main cast of the Big Bang Theory assures that smart is the new sexy. We agree with them: smart people clearly stand out from the crowd and are more likable. Those who don’t limit themselves with the natural properties of their mind, aside from physical exercise and cognitive techniques (such as n-back), often turn to use nootropics. Nootropics are the substances that can boost the cognitive abilities. Most of the nootropics are therapeutics that are sold at the pharmacies, but one of the most researched, safe and effective compounds can be found in virtually any kitchen.

Of course, we talk about caffeine. Its stimulating effect is well known to everyone. But does it really make us smarter? This question is tightly intervened with the main problem of the nootropics: ‘cognitive boost’ is really hard to measure. IQ test works perfectly for determining one’s ability to take IQ tests, but they can’t measure one’s mind. The subjectivity of change that is brought by the nootropics in the healthy brain is the main reason why nootropics are recognized and recommended only in several countries by their respective regulatory institutions. However, caffeine has an influence on the organism that can be measured objectively:

  • Increased alertness and decreased tiredness lead to better focus that is essential for the successful solving of hard cognitive tasks
  • Reduced reaction time and better motor coordination reveal the general stimulation of the nervous system

Sadly, caffeine doesn’t have enough boosting effects to consider it a nootropic on its own. However, it plays an important role in cognitive improvement. In the practice of nootropics usage, there is an important concept called “stack.” A stack is a combination of several compounds that synergize well. Caffeine is often used to increase the effects of other compounds.

The most studied compound that is combined with caffeine is L-Theanine. It is an amino acid, but it doesn’t form any proteins. L-Theanine is most similar to glutamine and glutamic acid. First, it was extracted from the tea, and the highest concentration of this compound can be found in the gyokuro tea. L-Theanine is safe and can be processed quickly by the organism. Just as caffeine, this compound isn’t effective enough to be a standalone nootropic. When combined with caffeine, however, L-Theanine has shown increased effectiveness. It was shown that caffeine together with L-Theanine could greatly boost the results in mentally-challenging problem-solving.

Caffeine is also known to synergize well with the choline. Choline is a compound that is a precursor for the acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter that, among other, improves memory and learning capabilities. Choline, in its turn, synergizes with the piracetam. Piracetam is a well researched and relatively safe therapeutic product (lethal dose is unknown, albeit animal trials has shown extremely low toxicity). It has started the entire subclass of nootropics known as racetams. The efficacy of piracetam is highly debated: even some of the nootropics’ advocates consider piracetam ineffective. Still, the safety and at least some degree of proven effectiveness of the piracetam-choline-caffeine stack allow for further consideration of it as a valid combination.

Caffeine can be an extremely effective cognitive booster, but its efficacy depends on several factors. There are some genetically-determined caffeine metabolism types that affect the excretion speed, effectiveness, and the collateral risks. The dosage is also important: it isn’t advocated to intake more than 400 mg of the caffeine a day (around 4 cups of coffee). Please remember that only the qualified medical professional can determine whether any therapeutic (including nootropics) is worth taking. Responsibility and knowledge are the keystones on the road to the long and healthy life.

References:

  1. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/147683008X301513
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20182035
  3. https://www.gwern.net/docs/nootropics/2010-nehlig.pdf
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24946991
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1435067
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20166767
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1794001