This is what happens to your brain when you drink coffee every day

Recently, in a deep dive into the functions of the human brain, Ladders reported on the intense short-term neurological effects associated with caffeine consumption.

Researchers from the University of Basel explored the famous drug’s link to neurology a little further in a study published in the journal, Cerebral Cortex. According to their analysis, habitual caffeine consumption can actually alter the gray matter of the brain for the worse.

What is gray matter?

Gray matter is the mass of neuronal cell bodies that allow mammals to efficiently process information. Independently conducted research has shown that sleep restriction can decrease gray matter volume (GMV) in the right thalamus.

The University of Basel academics behind the latest report wanted to know how regular coffee consumption engaged with this correlation. So, they recruited a study sample comprised of 20 healthy-self confessed coffee junkies.

Breaking down the study

At the start of the study, each was given caffeine tablets to take over two 10-day periods. They were asked not to consume any other sources of caffeine during these windows. The thing is, during the second 10 day period, the participants were unknowingly administered placebos.

At the end of each study period, the researchers examined the GMV of the participants alongside their sleep quality by recording the electrical activity of their brains (EEG).

Strangely, when the participants were actually consuming caffeine tablets their sleep did not appear to be adversely affected. However, when the participants consumed placebos their sleep remained the same while their GMV increased. This was especially noticeable in areas of the brain that involved memory consolidation.

This means consuming caffeine daily may yield negative neurological effects. Even if the very same effects can be undone after ten days of abstinence.

“Caffeine is commonly used to combat high sleep pressure on a daily basis. However, interference with sleep–wake regulation could disturb neural homeostasis and insufficient sleep could lead to alterations in human gray matter,” the authors wrote in a new report. “Larger GMV reductions were associated with higher individual concentrations of caffeine and paraxanthine. Sleep SWA was, however, neither different between conditions nor associated with caffeine-induced GMV reductions. Therefore, the data do not suggest a link between sleep depth during daily caffeine intake and changes in brain morphology. In conclusion, daily caffeine intake might induce neural plasticity in the mTL depending on individual metabolic processes.”

These results may feel contradictory to what you know about the effects coffee has on cognition. It should be noted that the findings indexed above were derived from a very small sample. Moreover, daily consumption of any drug will likely produce undesired effects.

Having said that, caffeine’s advantageous associations with brain function mostly concern focus. 

Caffeine enters the bloodstream about ten minutes after we imbibe it. Twenty minutes after consumption,  it binds to a brain chemical called adenosine, which neutralizes fatigue by increasing our energy production. This process dually causes dopamine levels to increase.

Should you stop drinking coffee?

Still, the positive and negative effects of caffeine can be enhanced and or compounded by the other tenents of a habitual consumer’s life.

“The bottom line is that coffee is one part of your lifestyle,” adds Vizthum. “Some of the factors that make a bigger impact on your health are eating a balanced diet, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight. Drinking coffee should just be an addition to those key health factors,” explains Diane Vizthum, M.S., R.D., research nutritionist for Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.