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Caffeine Boosts Brain’s Ability to Consolidate Memory

Update Date: Jan 13, 2014 04:49 PM EST

Drinking coffee, tea or energy drinks may stimulate long-term memory, a new study suggests. While these beverages are generally consumed to boost energy, scientists found that they may also boost memory consolidation.

Lead researcher Michael Yassa of Johns Hopkins University found that consuming caffeine might improve long-term memory in humans. They found that the stimulant enhances certain memories up to 24 hours after it is consumed.

"We've always known that caffeine has cognitive-enhancing effects, but its particular effects on strengthening memories and making them resistant to forgetting has never been examined in detail in humans," Yassa said in a news release. "We report for the first time a specific effect of caffeine on reducing forgetting over 24 hours."

The latest study involved participants who were not did not regularly eat or drink caffeinated products. Participants were given either a placebo or a 200-milligram caffeine tablet five minutes after looking a series of pictures.

A day later, when the caffeine was completely out of their systems, participants were asked to identify which pictures in a new set of photographs had also been shown the day before. Researchers said of the new pictures were similar but not identical to the old ones.  

The findings revealed that participants who were given caffeine were significantly better than those given the placebo at identifying new pictures that were similar but different to the old ones.

Researchers said that the findings suggest that caffeine enhances the brain's ability for pattern separation, which reflects a deeper level of memory retention.

"If we used a standard recognition memory task without these tricky similar items, we would have found no effect of caffeine," Yassa said. "However, using these items requires the brain to make a more difficult discrimination -- what we call pattern separation, which seems to be the process that is enhanced by caffeine in our case."

Yassa said that latest study is different from previous experiments because participants consumed caffeine after they had viewed and attempted to memorize the images.

"Almost all prior studies administered caffeine before the study session, so if there is an enhancement, it's not clear if it's due to caffeine's effects on attention, vigilance, focus or other factors. By administering caffeine after the experiment, we rule out all of these effects and make sure that if there is an enhancement, it's due to memory and nothing else," said Yassa.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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