Study shows Skipping or Drinking Coffee Reorganizes the Brain’s Connectivity

When the majority of adults wake up and get ready for their day, a cup of coffee (or two, or three) is a constant element of our repertoire. We may drink coffee in its purest, blackened state, just as it comes from the carafe, or flavor it up with cream and sweeteners. However we drink it, those of us who love our morning coffee will surely tout its benefits of a more alert and precise focus.

Ask any coffee connoisseur what it feels like to go without their morning Joe, and the reaction won’t be a positive one. Sluggish movement, drooping eyelids, lack of concentration; these are all commonly expressed symptoms of missing out on the morning caffeine fix. But one scientist wanted to find out exactly what happens to the brain when caffeine and food are withheld.

With a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology, Professor Russell A. Poldrack specializes in neuroscience and cognitive research at Stanford University in California. His latest study, entitled “Long-term neural and physiological phenotyping of a single human”, published in Nature Communications, deals predominantly with the effects of food and drinking coffee—and a lack thereof—on the human brain.

The majority of Poldrack’s studies relate to neural functions in healthy individuals, and while finding participants for studies isn’t usually difficult, this case was a bit different. The professor wanted to be able to study the brain’s activity in a healthy subject for an extended period of time, both with and without food and caffeine.

Finding it difficult to sustain an appropriate subject for the 18 month, twice weekly project, he decided to become his own guinea pig. Poldrack scanned his brain function for 10 minutes every Tuesday and Thursday morning – Tuesdays with no breakfast or coffee, Thursdays with – for 18 months.

Effects of Abstaining/Drinking Coffee

Although the results were not conclusive enough to determine whether fasting (no food or coffee) was good or bad, there was a clear difference in the brain’s connectivity.

Effects of Abstaining, Drinking Coffee

The majority of altered connectivity was observed in the somatosensory system (red area in the image above); the part of the brain that controls and communicates motor skills, like touch, pain, pressure, movement, vibration, position and temperature. Additionally, the sensory systems responsible for vision (blue area) were also notably affected.

“That was totally unexpected,” said Professor Poldrak, “but it shows that being caffeinated radically changes the connectivity of your brain.

“We don’t really know if it’s better or worse, but it’s interesting that these are relatively low-level areas. It may well be that I’m more fatigued on those days, and that drives the brain into this state that’s focused on integrating those basic processes more,” he conjectured.

Our brains work much like a computer, using more than a dozen networks to communicate with one another to deliver a particular output based on circumstantial input. Basically, for any situation that may arise, these networks are sending information back and forth to govern how the individual will react and respond to the situation.

Some networks deal with vision and somatosensory (motor function), while others handle things like attentiveness, responsiveness and task management. Based on Poldrack’s research, we at least know that the communication among these networks is being significantly altered. What we don’t know yet is to what degree the output (reaction and response) is being altered, or whether it’s a positive or negative based on whether we’re drinking coffee or not.



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