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The energy boost from your morning cup of coffee may be a placebo instead of the caffeine

In our fast-paced world, many of us kick start our day with a morning ritual that includes a steaming cup of coffee full of caffeine. Most people turn to this bitter delight not just for its rich taste, but for its ability to wake us up and enhance our productivity.

But have you ever wondered what gives coffee this power? Is it solely because of its caffeine content. Or is it more about the entire experience of drinking coffee?

To find the answers, a group of Portuguese researchers have embarked on a scientific journey. They focused on regular coffee-drinkers to find out what was actually giving them the energy boost.

Prof. Nuno Sousa from the University of Minho is the leading author of this study. He explains that it’s a general belief that “coffee increases alertness and psychomotor functioning.”

The researchers hoped to uncover the potential benefits and factors that can influence this phenomenon. They did so by gaining a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that trigger these effects.

How they conducted the morning cup of coffee/placebo study

The experiment involved volunteers who consume at least one cup of coffee daily. The researchers instructed these participants to abstain from any food or caffeinated drinks for a minimum of three hours prior to the study.

The researchers gathered sociodemographic data through interviews. They then conducted two quick functional MRI scans following the interviews.

One scan done before, and the other scan done thirty minutes after consuming caffeine, or a standardized cup of coffee. During the MRI scans, the researchers asked the participants to relax and let their thoughts wander.

The researchers’ hypothesis was based on the known neurochemical impacts of coffee. They anticipated that the MRI scans from the coffee drinkers would reveal enhanced integration of certain brain regions.

One of the networks they scanned is tied to the prefrontal cortex. This brain region is linked with executive memory. The other brain region they focused on was the default mode network. This region is involved in self-reflection and introspection.

Results from the morning cup of coffee vs. caffeine test

Indeed, their results showed that both drinking coffee and consuming caffeine reduced the connectivity of the default mode network. This suggests that whether it’s caffeine or a cup of coffee, either will do the trick.

Their study demonstrated that both caffeine and coffee can gear individuals up to transition from a state of rest to a state of task-oriented work.

However, what really sets coffee apart is its ability to increase connectivity in the higher visual network and the right executive control network. These brain regions are responsible for working memory, cognitive control, and goal-directed behavior.

Remarkably, when participants consumed only caffeine, the researchers did not observe this heightened connectivity. In short, if you want to feel not only alert but also ready for action, merely ingesting caffeine won’t cut it. You will need that full coffee experience.

Caffeine and a cup of coffee have different brain impacts

Dr. Maria Picó-Pérez of Jaume I University, the first author of the study, breaks down the findings.

“Acute coffee consumption decreased the functional connectivity between brain regions of the default mode network…the subjects were more ready for action and alert to external stimuli after having coffee.”

She also suggested that while some of the effects are likely related to caffeine, other effects seem unique to coffee. Factors like coffee’s distinctive aroma and taste possibly drive this finding. Or the psychological expectations tied to the drink could play a role.

Limitations of the study open future new exploration paths

However, the researchers acknowledged some limitations in their study. They couldn’t distinguish the impacts of solely experiencing the act of drinking coffee from the effects of the experience combined with caffeine intake.

Additionally, they didn’t test the theory that coffee drinkers might be experiencing relief from withdrawal symptoms. This physical state could also contribute to the perceived benefits.

Furthermore, as Prof. Sousa cautions, the observed changes in connectivity were studied during a resting-state sequence. Researchers would infer any assumed link to psychological and cognitive processes based on the common functions associated with the identified regions and networks.

However, such links were not directly tested. He also highlighted the potential for individual differences in caffeine metabolism among participants. This presents an interesting avenue for future exploration.

This intriguing study, while limited in certain respects, opens the door to a deeper understanding of the fascinating relationship between coffee, our brains, and our day-to-day productivity.

More about coffee and caffeine

Coffee, a popular and versatile beverage, is enjoyed by people worldwide. It has a rich history that dates back centuries. Here’s a detailed overview of coffee:


Coffee’s origins can be traced back to the 15th century in the highlands of Ethiopia. Legend has it that a shepherd noticed his goats were unusually energetic after eating berries from a certain tree.

These berries were coffee cherries. From Ethiopia, coffee spread to Egypt and Yemen, and by the 16th century, it had reached Persia, Turkey, and northern Africa.

Types of Coffee Beans

There are two main types of coffee beans consumed worldwide: Arabica and Robusta.

People generally consider Arabica beans, which make up about 70% of the world’s coffee, to have a more refined flavor profile. People often describe it as having a sweeter, softer taste with hints of sugar, fruit, and berries.

Robusta, on the other hand, has a stronger, more bitter taste. It has a grain-like overtone and peanutty aftertaste. Robusta contains nearly twice the amount of caffeine as Arabica. Manufacturers often use it in espresso blends to create a nice crema and add body.

Processing and Roasting

Once the coffee cherries are harvested, they must be processed to extract the coffee beans. The most common methods are the wet (or washed) process and the dry (or natural) process.

Each method influences the final taste of the coffee. After processing, they dry and sort the beans before roasting them.

Roasting transforms the green coffee beans into the dark brown beans we’re familiar with. The level of roast – light, medium, or dark – greatly affects the flavor of the coffee.

Light roasts are more acidic and retain most of the original coffee characteristics. Medium roasts balance acidity and body. Dark roasts have a smoky, bitter flavor and are less acidic.

Brewing Methods

There are various ways to brew coffee. These include using a drip coffee maker, French press, espresso machine, pour-over system, or Moka pot.

Each method results in a different taste and strength of the coffee. They range from the concentrated, full-bodied shot of espresso to the lighter, more aromatic pour-over brew.

Health Effects from a Cup of Coffee

Coffee has a complex mix of chemicals including caffeine, antioxidants, and diterpenes. These have various impacts on our health.

Caffeine, the most well-known component, is a stimulant. It can improve mood, alertness, and mental performance. However, too much can lead to restlessness, insomnia, and irregular heartbeat.

Research indicates that moderate coffee consumption may have several health benefits. These include reduced risk of several types of cancer, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Coffee is also high in antioxidants, which can help protect against many illnesses. However, it can also increase blood pressure and cause digestive problems, so moderation is key.

Economic Importance

Coffee is a major export commodity. It is the top agricultural export for numerous countries. In addition, developing countries export coffee as one of their most valuable commodities.

The global coffee industry earns an estimated $60 billion annually.

Environmental Impact

Coffee cultivation can have various environmental impacts, including deforestation and harm to wildlife. Unfortunately, people clear forests to make way for coffee plantations. However, the industry increasingly promotes sustainable farming practices.

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