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Caffeine fueled "all-nighters"

Few students have got through University without resorting to "all-nighters", a sort of last minute cramming gone mad where the student stays up all night to meet a deadline or absorb more knowledge for an exam. Some students claim the technique, fueled by coffee, tea or caffeine supplements, works brilliantly, others are more sceptical. Here we examine the evidence.

Researchers have put considerable time and effort into observing the effect of caffeine on short term memory. The results show that caffeine improves performance on tasks that require recalling small amounts of information but has no effect, or maybe even impairs, the ability to retain much greater volumes. Certainly caffeine enables you to stay awake, but won't necessarily improve your intellectual skills. Repetitive or mundane tasks have been shown in tests to be improved by caffeine consumption, but this has been suggested to be due to the fact that such activities make only small demands on short term memory. There has been no conclusive evidence to suggest that caffeine will help you memorise your lecture notes, and there have even been suggestions that performance may be impaired.

Fans of the "all-nighters" will still suggest that caffeine extends their study time. True, but there has to be the inevitable pay back. The crash when the stimulating powers subside can bring with it anxiety, restlessness, headaches and nausea, as well as disrupting sleep patterns in nights to come. The extent of the 'come-down' experienced will be personal; some students will be fine on doses that would cause severe distress in others. Just because a colleague can perform well in such conditions doesn't mean everyone can, a fact that some students, in the panic of revising, can easily forget.

However, it's not all doom and gloom. Recent research by Professor Menachem Segal at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel, suggests that caffeine actually alters brain cells in a way that would improve long term memory. Little research into long term memory had been conducted before Segal published his findings in the Proceedings of the  National Academy of Sciences, in October 1999. In his report, Segal claimed that caffeine was seen to alter the shape of brain cells, by extending the dendritic spines and even stimulating new branches (dendritic spines are the branching extensions at the end of nerve cells that enable them to make synaptic connections with each other). Further research is underway to investigate this astonishing phenomenon.

Analysis of evidence summarised from Weinberg and Bealer, The World of Caffeine, Routledge, London, 2001.

Image used with blanket permission from Microsoft Office Clipart

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Caffeine - Simon Tilling