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Faster but not smarter: effects of caffeine and caffeine withdrawal on alertness and performance

Abstract

Rationale

Despite 100 years of psychopharmacological research, the extent to which caffeine consumption benefits human functioning remains unclear.

Objectives

To measure the effects of overnight caffeine abstinence and caffeine administration as a function of level of habitual caffeine consumption.

Methods

Medium-high (n = 212) and non-low (n = 157) caffeine consumers completed self-report measures and computer-based tasks before (starting at 10:30 AM) and after double-blind treatment with either caffeine (100 mg, then 150 mg) or placebo. The first treatment was given at 11:15 AM and the second at 12:45 PM, with post-treatment measures repeated twice between 1:45 PM and 3:30 PM.

Results

Caffeine withdrawal was associated with some detrimental effects at 10:30 AM, and more severe effects, including greater sleepiness, lower mental alertness, and poorer performance on simple reaction time, choice reaction time and recognition memory tasks, later in the afternoon. Caffeine improved these measures in medium-high consumers but, apart from decreasing sleepiness, had little effect on them in non-low consumers. The failure of caffeine to increase mental alertness and improve mental performance in non-low consumers was related to a substantial caffeine-induced increase in anxiety/jitteriness that offset the benefit of decreased sleepiness. Caffeine enhanced physical performance (faster tapping speed and faster simple and choice reaction times) in both medium-high and non-low consumers.

Conclusions

While caffeine benefits motor performance and tolerance develops to its tendency to increase anxiety/jitteriness, tolerance to its effects on sleepiness means that frequent consumption fails to enhance mental alertness and mental performance.

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Acknowledgments

This research was funded by a grant (BBS/B/01855) from the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. We thank the volunteers who participated in this study and our colleagues Professor Richard Evershed and Dr. Pete Maxfield for their expertise in the analysis of salivary caffeine and paraxanthine concentrations. PJR has received grants to support research on caffeine from GlaxoSmithKline.

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Correspondence to Peter J. Rogers.

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Rogers, P.J., Heatherley, S.V., Mullings, E.L. et al. Faster but not smarter: effects of caffeine and caffeine withdrawal on alertness and performance. Psychopharmacology 226, 229–240 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-012-2889-4

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Keywords

  • Caffeine
  • Tolerance
  • Withdrawal
  • Mental performance
  • Physical performance
  • Reaction time
  • Cognition
  • Alertness
  • Sleep
  • Anxiety