Most historians contend that the peoples of Arabia were the first to value caffeine as a concentration enhancer. More than 600 years later, coffee remains the most popular substance in this regard. Yet there isn’t much research on the mechanisms.
“Despite the growing interest in caffeine use and its effects among adolescents, and a large literature on caffeine and attention among adults, there is a lack of experimental work examining the impact of caffeine on sustained attention,” the authors of a new study published in Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology journal. “We evaluated the acute effects of caffeine (vs. placebo) during a long (33-min) classic vigilance task among 31 adolescents (aged 12–17; 15 female; median caffeine use = 28 mg/day).”
These ” vigilance tasks” had participants try to identify rare pairs in a stream of four-digit numbers for half an hour. The study pool was disallowed from consuming caffeine the day before.
In addition to the previously studied benefits of habitual caffeine consumption, including the risk reduction of mouth and throat cancer by 50%, and the reduction of liver damage by 84%, the new report determined that the drug improves mental focus and alertness for longer than initially assumed.
Caffeine enhances sustained attention
“Caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive drug in the world, so it is important to understand its influence on human behavior and cognition,”study author Robert Cooper, a PhD candidate at the University at Buffalo, explained in a press release. “More research using caffeine can help us understand why a majority of the population, adolescents included, use (or rely on…?) caffeine on a daily basis, especially now that highly caffeinated energy drinks and caffeine alternatives (such as energy gum and chocolate) are widely available.”
In the first leg of the experiment, all of the participants performed about the same on their assigned tasks–with performance declining steadily over time.
In the second experiment, however, wherein some participants were administered noncaloric flavored water containing a placebo, while the rest received actual caffeine, the latter was more resistant to declining attendance.
Roughly ten minutes into their assignments, caffeine noticeably improved performance function among the experiment group.
“This study demonstrated that caffeine acutely and dose-dependently improves sustained attention among adolescents. These results were likely due to the attention-enhancing effect of caffeine, rather than withdrawal reversal, as our sample was characterized by light to moderate caffeine use.”
“I have often used caffeine, particularly coffee or energy gum, to keep alertness during long class periods, meetings, and car drives, and many of my colleagues and friends also use caffeine to remain mentally sharp,” Cooper told Psypost.
The others did make a point to underscore the negative associations of caffeine consumed in excess.
Chronic use causes individuals to develop a tolerance which negates any of the cognitive benefits listed above. Overtime disruptions to sleep often follow.
According to federal dietary guidelines, three to five eight-ounce cups of coffee a day or 400 milligrams of caffeine is the optimal amount to achieve a healthy balance.
“After reviewing the literature on caffeine and sustained attention, the evidence was surprisingly equivocal, despite most of us believing caffeine can positively influence our ability to perform during periods where prolonged attention is required. It also became clear that much of this literature did not focus on adolescents, which is a critical development period where caffeine use may escalate.
This study provides the foundation for further work on the impact of chronic caffeine consumption on cognitive function during adolescence.”
The study, “Caffeine Enhances Sustained Attention Among Adolescents“, was authored by Robert K. Cooper Jr., Schuyler C. Lawson, Sarah S. Tonkin, Amanda M. Ziegler, Jennifer L. Temple, Larry W. Hawk Jr.