Coffee consumption and mental performance – Part 1

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Coffee and Health includes current scientific information on a wide range of coffee-related topics, including coffee consumption and mental performance. The following provides an overview of this topic – there is such a wealth of information on this topic that we have divided it into three parts.

It has long been understood that certain foods, and the nutrients they contain, can have subtle effects on mood and mental performance. The timing of meals, the type of food eaten and substances contained in those foods have all been, and continue to be, studied in the hope that we can help improve memory, alertness and mood etc.

Caffeine is well known for its stimulating effects, which have proven benefits for mental performance. Recently, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) evaluated substantial evidence on the effects of caffeine and mental performance, concluding that that there is sufficient evidence to support a cause and effect relationship for the effect of caffeine on concentration.

Caffeine improves visual attention
Numerous studies have investigated the effects of caffeine ingestion on visual attention. EFSA recently concluded that 75mg of caffeine increases both selective attention (defined as focussing on the relevant stimulus) and sustained attention (defined as maintenance of focused attention over an extended period of time). However higher caffeine intakes, such as those found in more than one or two cups of coffee, do not necessarily result in additional increases in alertness. It can be seen that a reduction in performance can occur with both under- and over-stimulation. The expectation of having consumed caffeine can also improve attention and psychomotor speed.

Caffeine improves reaction time
The positive effects of caffeine on reaction time have been studied extensively over the last decades. Experiments confirm the positive effects of caffeine on reaction time, however, caffeine appears to have no effect on the sense of time passing in an individual or the time it takes to produce something following a stimulus.

Caffeine improves alertness and safety during sleep deprivation
The effects of caffeine on alertness are most marked in situations where an individual’s alertness level is reduced, such as when suffering from the common cold, the post-lunch dip, or during night work.

During night work, caffeine has been shown to reduce cognitive failures and accidents by about 50% in subjects consuming over 220mg caffeine daily, i.e. the amount found in approximately two cups of coffee. Caffeine also reduces cognitive failures in the non-working population.

Caffeine is often consumed at awakening to increase alertness and fight sleep inertia which may interfere with the ability to perform mental or physical tasks. One of the reasons why caffeine-containing beverages are popular after awakening may be that caffeine can help overcome sleep inertia.

The efficacy of coffee versus napping on night-time highway driving has also been compared, finding that both drinking a strong coffee (classified as 125mL containing 200mg caffeine) and/or taking a short nap (15-30 minutes) are very effective at reducing driving impairment, with the improvement being greater when the two are combined.

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