Coffee improves memory? Hm.

Study Title

Caffeine enhances memory performance in young adults during their non-optimal time of day.
Study Authors
Stephanie M. Sherman, Timothy P. Buckley, Elsa Baena, Lee Ryan
Study Model Human
Abstract Link


Latte, cappucino, flat white, americano…in other words coffee. Drunk by 80% of the world’s population on a daily basis coffee is one of the most popular stimulants. The key ingredient – caffeine, easily crosses the blood-brain barrier (and it does that quickly too), improving alertness, attention, and giving us faster reaction time.

But does it help memory? I’ve read in the news that coffee helps regular coffee drinkers only in a way that it fixes their ‘coffee withdrawal’ symptoms. Otherwise no effect when compared to people who don’t drink coffee.

Today we are going to discuss Stephanie Sherman’s article: “Caffeine enhances memory performance in young adults during their non-optimal time of day”, which compares the effect of caffeine and exercise in young adults (students) at the time of their lowest physiological performance point – in the early morning (article free to access here).


Student lifestyle

I guess all those late nights don’t make waking up in the morning easy for students. Partying (I mean studying, obviously), late night sessions with drinks (books, of course)… Unfortunately for most, final exams tend to take place in the morning hours when they are still half asleep, and not in the afternoon when they would be wide awake.

If you are a student reading this, suggest to your uni to have exams in the afternoon – you and your friends could get better scores, cause well, you’d be awake writing the exam!


Does coffee help your memory?

The study compared the effect of: caffeine vs decaf and cardiovascular exercise vs stretching on memory in students.

What Sharon found in her study is that caffeine had a positive impact on explicit memory during students’ non-optimal time of day (early morning), but not in the afternoon, showing no difference between decaf vs caffeine groups. In addition, despite feeling ‘awake’ the cardiovascular exercise group of participants didn’t perform better than a group which did stretches.

Moreover, based on the study data shown in the publication it looks like mean performance for morning groups (both caffeine and decaf) was better than in the afternoon group (figure 2 in the article). Or did I read that wrong?


Caffeine enhances memory? Hm.

I think the article’s title is a bit misleading as it says ‘caffeine enhances memory’, but we can’t really say that as people who don’t drink coffee were excluded from the study. A regular coffee drinker in a decaf group would experience some caffeine withdrawal symptoms for sure.

The analogy that I see here is like saying ‘nicotine enhances memory’ – excluding all non-smokers from the study, then giving half of the smokers normal cigarettes and the other half some ‘nicotine-free’ alternative.

I would expect the ‘nicotine-free’ group to experience nicotine craving and perform worse in some tests than smokers who got their fix of nicotine, so I think ‘caffeine enhances memory’ is not something that can be claimed in this study.


I think what we could learn from this publication is:

  1. If you drink coffee regularly – drink it when you feel asleep (usually early morning for young adults, afternoon for older adults based on circadian rhythms).
  2. If you are awake (e.g. a student in the afternoon) caffeine has no impact on memory as there was no difference between caffeine and decaf groups.
  3. If you can avoid late nights, so that you wake up refreshed in the morning, then most likely you won’t even need a coffee for your memory to work well.
  4. Exercise doesn’t help your memory short term despite making you feel awake (but it does show benefits long term as you can reduce your risk of mental diseases by staying active).


What do you think? Are you pro-coffee to give you a boost in the morning? Let me know in the Comments section below.

Dr Bart Alright 


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