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Illustration showing a woman sleeping, looking very tired in a stack of mugs of coffee
The gray matter expanded for people who didn't have caffeine, according to the study. Illustration by (c) Reset Fest Inc, Canada

Health

That Last Cup of Coffee Isn’t Keeping You up but It’s Altering Your Brain, Says New Study

One cup or six, coffee is affecting your gray matter.

The perfect coffee can really help in starting our day on the right note, but we inevitably feel the effects wear off and lethargy creeps back in post lunch. That’s when you look for an afternoon pick-me-up, but wait, you can’t have another coffee, it’ll keep you up all night, right? 

Wrong, turns out. 

According to a recently published study by University of Basel, Switzerland, caffeine doesn’t affect your sleep cycle as much as it does affect your brain. A study conducted by Professor Christian Cajochen and Dr. Carolin Reichert showed that regular caffeine intake changed the volume of gray matter in the brain. 

The study group took 20 young, healthy subjects and gave them two caffeine pills each for 10 days, and they were asked not to consume any other form of caffeine for the duration of the study. They were then given two pills with placebos (no caffeine) for another 10 days. Their sleep and their brains were monitored during both periods to study any differences. 

Researchers found that the subjects’ gray matter expanded when they took the placebo pills.

Surprisingly, the results showed that the quality of sleep in all participants was not affected but their gray matter changed depending on whether they had the caffeine pills or not. Gray matter is part of the central nervous system, consisting of a majority of cell bodies, and is in charge of functions such as sensory control (smell, touch, sight, taste), memory, muscle control, and speech, among others. Researchers found that the subjects’ gray matter expanded when they took the placebo pills, particularly in the part of the brain that deals with memory consolidation. However, the real-life implications of this expansion are yet to be studied, but the expansion or contraction of the gray matter may affect our memory and the structure of the brain. 

Reichart however pointed out that this may not necessarily mean that caffeine is bad for our health but it does definitely affect our “cognitive hardware.” Speaking about the research, she added that these findings should give rise to further studies as most caffeine-related studies have been conducted with patients and not healthy people. 

The findings merit more research but it does establish that caffeine in any form — be it energy drinks, coffee, or tea — does not affect your sleep. This also explains why so many people talk about feeling drowsy instead of alert after having coffee. The study also showed that the gray matter increased after just a short time of abstaining from caffeine, which means it’s something that can be regulated easily. 

Rethinking that third cup of coffee? So are we.


Also read: Not Just Sleepless Nights: Why Night Shift Workers May Have Higher Risk of Developing Cancer


 

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That Last Cup of Coffee Isn’t Keeping You up but It’s Altering Your Brain, Says New Study