Aside from the obvious help in waking us up in the morning, or keeping away an afternoon slump, there is good news for fans of coffee, tea, and dark chocolate showing that caffeine may actually help preserve or even enhance our cognitive abilities.
The mechanics are complicated, but the end result is that caffeine enhances synaptic plasticity (better capacity to learn), increases alertness (as many of us know), boosts neurotransmitter release, and improves motor skills, and cognition. The long-term effects of caffeine intake via coffee, tea, or cocoa are still being investigated, but past research shows that it may yield a lot of good later in life as well.
For example, research shows a potential link between caffeine consumption and lower risks of Alzheimer’s disease, because it seems to inhibit production of beta-amyloid (responsible for the plaques and tangles that interfere with brain signals). Additionally, the adenosine-receptor inhibitory effects of moderate coffee consumption may reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease by as much as 30 percent.
While much of the scientific research and clinical studies have focused on components from coffee and tea, cocoa likewise contains caffeine and caffeine-related compounds and metabolites. All in all, these favorite plant-based foods, which most likely developed bitter-tasting caffeine as a way of avoiding damage and consumption, may actually be some of the best choices for preserving cognition and mental well-being.
Camandola S, Plick N, Mattson MP. Impact of Coffee and Cacao Purine Metabolites on Neuroplasticity and Neurodegenerative Disease. Neurochem Res. 2019;44(1):214-227. doi:10.1007/s11064-018-2492-0
Increasing evidence suggests that regular consumption of coffee, tea and dark chocolate (cacao) can promote brain health and may reduce the risk of age-related neurodegenerative disorders. However, the complex array of phytochemicals in coffee and cacao beans and tea leaves has hindered a clear understanding of the component(s) that affect neuronal plasticity and resilience. One class of phytochemicals present in relatively high amounts in coffee, tea and cacao are methylxanthines. Among such methylxanthines, caffeine has been the most widely studied and has clear effects on neuronal network activity, promotes sustained cognitive performance and can protect neurons against dysfunction and death in animal models of stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Caffeine’s mechanism of action relies on antagonism of various subclasses of adenosine receptors. Downstream xanthine metabolites, such as theobromine and theophylline, may also contribute to the beneficial effects of coffee, tea and cacao on brain health.