A new study done by scientists from the Michigan State University (MSU) assessed the effectiveness of caffeine in controlling the negative effects of sleep deprivation on cognition.
Researchers from MSU’s Sleep and Learning Lab, led by psychology associate professor Kimberly Fenn, examined how caffeine can limit the negative impacts of irregular sleep on cognition and it was found that caffeine had little effect.
The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, assessed the impact of caffeine after a night of sleep deprivation. More than 275 participants were asked to complete a simple attention test as well as a more challenging “place keeping” task that needed to be completed in a specific order without skipping or repeating steps. The study is the first to investigate the effect of caffeine on place keeping after a period of sleep deprivation.
“We found that sleep deprivation impaired performance on both types of tasks and that having caffeine helped people successfully achieve the easier task. However, it had little effect on performance on the place keeping task for most participants,” Ms. Fenn said.
The study reveals that caffeine may improve the ability to stay awake and attend to a task, but it doesn’t do much to prevent the sort of procedural errors that can cause things like medical mistakes and car accidents.
Insufficient sleep is prevalent in the US, a problem that has intensified during the pandemic, Ms. Fenn said. Consistently lacking adequate sleep not only affects cognition and alters mood, but can eventually take a toll on immunity.
Caffeine increases energy, reduces sleepiness and can even improve mood, but it does not replace a full night of sleep. People may feel as if they can combat sleep deprivation with one or two cups of coffee, but the fact is that their performance on higher-level tasks will be impaired and this is one of the reasons why sleep deprivation can be so dangerous.
The study has the potential to inform both theory and practice, Ms. Fenn said, “If we had found that caffeine significantly reduced procedural errors under conditions of sleep deprivation, this would have broad implications for individuals who must perform high stakes procedures with insufficient sleep, like surgeons, pilots and police officers. Instead, our findings underscore the importance of prioritizing sleep.”