Coffee & Health
Mental performance

Research provides new insight on functional changes that regular coffee drinking has on the brain

April 20, 2021

The study is the first to explore the effect of coffee drinking on the brain’s network in this level of detail

The findings have helped to provide a mechanistic insight into some of the effects observed in existing research on coffee; including improved motor control, increased alertness and benefits to learning and memory1.

A new study published in Molecular Psychiatry and sponsored by the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee (ISIC), provides unique insights into the functional and connectivity changes that happen within the brain of regular coffee drinkers1.  This includes findings that when at rest, regular coffee drinkers had a reduced degree of connectivity in two areas of the brain (known as the right precuneus and right insular), indicating effects such as improved motor control and alertness (helping them to be better able to react to a stimulus), in comparison to non-coffee drinkers1.

Patterns of more efficient connectivity were also found in other areas of the brain (including in the cerebellum and between the thalamus and the cerebellum), consistent with effects including improved motor control among regular coffee drinkers, compared to non-coffee drinkers1.

Further findings included an increase in dynamic activity observed in several cerebellar and sub-cortical areas of the brain among regular coffee drinkers, consistent with effects including a reduction in mind wandering, increases in attention, alertness and arousal, and enhanced learning and memory. Put simply, these changes imply an improved ability to focus. These areas of the brain include the cerebellum, striatum, thalamus, parahipocampus, and the lingual and inferior occipital gyri1.

Interestingly, the structural and connectivity differences observed among regular coffee drinkers in this research also occurred in non-coffee drinkers soon after they consumed a cup of coffee. This therefore indicates that coffee can impose these changes in a short time period, and that these effects are triggered by coffee1.

The research was conducted by a team led by Professor Nuno Sousa, of the School of Medicine, University of Minho, Portugal. The researchers used technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to compare the connectivity and structure of the brain of 31 regular coffee drinkers (who drink coffee everyday) and 24 non-coffee drinkers; while at rest, while performing a task, and soon after consuming a cup of coffee1.

Professor Nuno Sousa, commented: “This is the first time that the effect of regular coffee drinking on the brain’s network has been studied in this level of detail. By using fMRI technology, we were able to observe the effect of coffee on the brain’s functional connectivity and structure, and the differences between regular coffee drinkers and non-coffee drinkers, in real-time. These findings have – at least in part – helped to provide a mechanistic insight for some of the effects observed in existing research on coffee; such as improved motor control, increased alertness, and benefits to learning and memory.”

The effect of caffeine and coffee on mental performance has been the subject of extensive research to date, with previous research demonstrating its effect in improving attention, alertness and arousal2,3, motor control4, and learning and memory5,6. These new findings add to the body of research in this area, providing insights into the structural changes behind these effects1.


Notes to editors

  • Moderate coffee consumption can be defined as 3–5 cups per day, based on the European Food Safety Authority’s review of caffeine safety7.

Author of the report

  • Professor Nuno Sousa, School of Medicine, University of Minho, Portugal.


  1. Magalhaes R et al. (2021) Habitual coffee drinkers display a distinct pattern of brain functional connectivity. Molecular Psychiatry. Published online ahead of print:
  2. EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA) (2011) Scientific Opinion on the substantiation of health claims related to caffeine and increased fat oxidation leading to a reduction in body fat mass (ID 735, 1484), increased energy expenditure leading to a reduction in body weight (ID 1487), increased alertness (ID 736, 1101, 1187, 1485, 1491, 2063, 2103) and increased attention (ID 736, 1485, 1491, 2375) pursuant to Article 13(1) of Regulation (EC) No 1924/20061.EFSA Journal, 9(4):2054.
  3. Kahathuduwa CN, et al. (2018) l – Theanine and caffeine improve target-specific attention to visual stimuli by decreasing mind wandering: a human functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Nutrition Research, 49:67–78.
  4. McLellan TM et al. (2016) A review of caffeine’s effects on cognitive, physical and occupational performance. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 71:294-312.
  5. Klaassen EB, et al. (2013) The effect of caffeine on working memory load-related brain activation in middle-aged males. Neuropharmacology, 64:160–7.
  6. Haller S, et al. (2017) Caffeine impact on working memory-related network activation patterns in early stages of cognitive decline. Neuroradiology, 4:387–95.
  7. EFSA (2015) Scientific Opinion on the Safety of Caffeine, EFSA Journal, 13(5):4102.

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