Energy Drinks, Neuroscience and the Learning Experience

Essay written by Melissa Smith, Lifelong Learners curriculum developer and owner.


Summary:

Last year, I had a student (year 12) who in her final school exams stayed up all night cramming the night before the exam. She had left everything to the last minute and felt this was the best study option she had. Over the course of the evening she took at least 4 no doze tablets and also drank a few red bulls. She then drank 4 more before walking into the exam room, as well as taking additional no doze. Within half an hour of the exam commencing, her heart rate was so high and her anxiety so bad that staff called an ambulance for her.

Caffeine is currently the most widely used stimulant in the world, and is mainly found in coffee, tea, soft drinks and chocolate. Daily caffeine consumption per person averages 76 mg (equivalent to 1/4 cups of coffee) worldwide and 238 mg (more than 4 ½ cups of coffee) in the United States (Radiological Society of North America, 2005). Caffeine and kids (or adults) on a long term, high dose basis do not mix. A cup of coffee or two a day? No problem…..but 7 energy drinks? Not a good plan. Researchers have found that long-term consumption of caffeine slowed hippocampus-dependent learning and impaired long-term memory in mice (Myoung-Eun, H.,  Kyu-Hyun, P., Sun-Yong, B., Bong-Seon, K., Jae-Bong, K., Hak-Jin, K., Sae-Ock, Oh, 2007). The hippocampus is a major component of the brains of humans and other mammals. It belongs to the limbic system and plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation. Caffeine consumption on a consistent basis for four weeks also significantly reduced hippocampal neurogenesis compared to controls during the experiment. The conclusion was that long-term consumption of caffeine could inhibit hippocampus-dependent learning and memory partially through inhibition of hippocampal neurogenesis.

Energy Drinks and Learning

The effects of caffeine on short-term memory ( STM) are controversial. Findings are inconsistent, as some effects of caffeine impair short-term and working memory, whereas other studies indicate enhancing effects in the short term. Increasing our capacities of STM and working memory only seem to have beneficial impacts upon our daily lives, especially when it comes to learning! STM lets us take in the information, hold it and then form neural pathways so we can keep the “important stuff” permanently. and recall information more effectively.

Theoretically, increasing our memory capacities would result in retaining more information for extended periods of time and more ease in encoding information from short-term memory to long-term memory. Caffeine is the most consumed psychoactive compound in the world and the caffeine consumption by adolescents has more than tripled in the last 6 years, so we have to be concerned with how this drug can affect our memory and therefore, our learning capacity. .


Results?

A lot of studies indicate short term improvements with caffeine and any student (young or old) will tell you a caffeine injection on an all night study effort or before an exam can make a big difference. There are numerous studies on all sides – for every 100 I provide that say it negatively impacts learning, I could find another 100 that say it is beneficial. The facts however indicate that continued, low-dose caffeine intake WILL reduce impact (it only takes 7 days to build up a tolerance to 400mg which is approximately 5 cups of cofffee or 4 energy drinks) and therefore will reduce any benefit. So whilst a random dose of caffeine will provide stimulation and could potentially improve STM in the short term, continued use (daily) will have a reduced impact and can become an addiction. Ever tried to give up your daily coffee or soft drink? Headaches, irritability, anger and stomach aches will ensue and it is the same for kids and energy drinks.

Bottom line: Don’t encourage children to drink energy drinks – developing an addiction (even to something legal and potentially beneficial in the short term) has long term consequences that far out-weigh the short term study gain. If you are studying and you are tired – do some exercise, stretch, go for a walk/run, wash your face in cold water or try to have a power nap! Better yet – understand the neuroscience behind learning and make sure you encourage students to review study material consistently so they don’t have to cram at the last minute.

References

Myoung-Eun, H.,  Kyu-Hyun, P., Sun-Yong, B., Bong-Seon, K., Jae-Bong, K., Hak-Jin, K., Sae-Ock, Oh. (2007) Inhibitory effects of caffeine on hippocampal neurogenesis and function. Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications 356 (2007) 976–980

Radiological Society of North America (2005) Coffee jump starts short term memory. Retrieved from: http://www2.rsna.org/timssnet/media/pressreleases/pr_target.cfm?ID=270

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