Why that morning jolt from coffee is not just the caffeine

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That morning cup of joe may not be the only thing fueling your day.

Researchers in Portugal recently tested whether it was the effect of caffeine or simply the ritual of drinking coffee that puts a pep in the step of coffee consumers in the morning.

“If you listen to these individuals, they typically say that they need to have coffee in the morning to get ready,” said Nuno Sousa, one of the study’s authors and a professor at the University of Minho’s School of Medicine in Portugal.

“We wanted to understand the brain mechanisms and functional connectivity pattern that would justify this claim,” he added.

Researchers of the study, published last week in Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience, studied 83 people — all of whom drank at least one cup of coffee a day.

They then underwent MRI scans so they could observe the participants’ brain activity before and after drinking coffee.

Two mugs of coffee on the table.
The study found the ritual of drinking coffee is responsible for the feeling of alertness.
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Man holding mug of coffee smelling it.
The sight, smell or taste of coffee may help people feel alert — regardless of the caffeine.
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Asking all participants to refrain from eating or drinking caffeinated beverages for at least three hours before the study, 47 people in the group had MRIs before drinking coffee and then again 30 minutes after.

The remaining 36 were simply given caffeine diluted in hot water, also undergoing the same MRI scans before and after.

The scans suggested coffee — which research has shown is a psychostimulant and can make people feel more awake — was only responsible for certain changes in brain activity, while caffeine was responsible for other changes.

Brain scans.
Researchers found that caffeine alone often isn’t enough to stimulate you in the morning; apparently, the ritual or experience of drinking a cup of coffee is needed.
Copyright © 2023 PicoÌ-PeÌrez, Magalhães, Esteves, Vieira, Castanho, Amorim, Sousa, Coelho, Moreira, Cunha and Sousa. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Crea

However, the MRI scans showed that short-term memory, attention and focus had increased activity after drinking coffee — but not when ingesting caffeine on its own.

The study also suggested drinking coffee makes individuals more prepared to switch from rest to task mode by decreasing connectivity in the default mode network of the brain, which is the area more active during passive tasks, as opposed to ones from “external” forces.

Researchers suggested that caffeine alone often isn’t enough to stimulate you in the morning, and the specific experience of drinking a cup of coffee is needed.

“The pleasure that is given to an individual that likes coffee in the morning, that actually is part of almost a ritual that really is also important for that individual to feel that ‘I’m ready for the day,’” Sousa said.

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