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Is Caffeine a Cognitive Enhancer?


The effects of caffeine on cognition were reviewed based on the large body of literature available on the topic. Caffeine does not usually affect performance in learning and memory tasks, although caffeine may occasionally have facilitatory or inhibitory effects on memory and learning. Caffeine facilitates learning in tasks in which information is presented passively; in tasks in which material is learned intentionally, caffeine has no effect. Caffeine facilitates performance in tasks involving working memory to a limited extent, but hinders performance in tasks that heavily depend on working memory, and caffeine appears to rather improve memory performance under suboptimal alertness conditions. Most studies, however, found improvements in reaction time. The ingestion of caffeine does not seem to affect long-term memory. At low doses, caffeine improves hedonic tone and reduces anxiety, while at high doses, there is an increase in tense arousal, including anxiety, nervousness, jitteriness. The larger improvement of performance in fatigued subjects confirms that caffeine is a mild stimulant. Caffeine has also been reported to prevent cognitive decline in healthy subjects but the results of the studies are heterogeneous, some finding no age-related effect while others reported effects only in one sex and mainly in the oldest population. In conclusion, it appears that caffeine cannot be considered a `pure' cognitive enhancer. Its indirect action on arousal, mood and concentration contributes in large part to its cognitive enhancing properties.