A blog on biology, psychology, cognition, learning, memory, aging, and everything in between. Explaining recent discoveries in neuroscience, translated to language we can all understand!
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The following is a story about a college girl named Jordan.
Jordan blindly, exhaustedly, yet somehow successfully stumbled her way through college. In her final two years, she averaged 4 or 5 hours of sleep every night due to schoolwork, labwork, club responsibilities, and the dreaded 4:55 A.M. alarm for crew practice.
She only drank one coffee, ever—a pumpkin spice latte—simply because the rest of her team regularly raided Starbucks after races. It tasted alright. Oh, and she had some orange energy drink before a Developmental Bio exam once. Her pee was subsequently green.
A graduate student once told her, "If you get into grad school, you'll become addicted to coffee." Jordan scoffed at the silly, weak student, and vowed, "Ha! Never."
Then one day Jordan had a Bob Evans mocha, and her life was forever changed.
Well, maybe that was a bit dramatic. My life hasn't changed that much really, but the unique smell and somewhat bitter taste of coffee is no longer aversive to me. To the contrary, I've come to pleasantly enjoy its energizing effect in small doses. And, because I like to understand what I'm putting in my body, I decided to explore coffee: its history, its neurological mechanism, and—what I'm sure everyone's dying to know—why it is so easy to become addicted and dependent on it.
A brief history of coffee
According to legend, the first cup of coffee came into being in a most magical way. A goat-herd named Kaldi glimpsed the energizing effects of the unique, bright red berries in his flock and took it upon himself to test it out. Such revitalization inspired Kaldi to take the berries to a Muslim holy man. Scared, the holy man tossed them into a fire. Roasted beans were separated from the embers, ground, and dissolved in hot water, creating—you guessed it—the world's first cup of coffee.
Coffee beans are derived from several species of the Coffea shrub—most commonly C. canephoraand C. arabica. These plants may grow up to 5 feet tall and produce beautiful glossy, dark green leaves. The leaves then ripen to yellow, red, and finally black. Coffea plants are native to Ethiopia, Sudan, and Kenya, and subsaharan Africa. Today, Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Colombia are the world leaders in coffee production, raising seedlings in nurseries before transferring them outdoors when they are between 6 and 12 months old.
Each berry contains two seeds. It may be surprising to you that these seeds are white. Only when roasted do we see—and smell—the recognizable coffee bean (what I thought were little balls of wood when I was younger). Roasting occurs when the internal temperature of the bean reaches 200º C (392º F), causing caramelization, or starch breakdown, which browns the simple sugars. Acids and oils within the bean weaken, creating its characteristic bitter flavor. Caffeol, one such oil, is generated at 200º C and is largely responsible for coffee's flavor.
The coffee buzz
As you know, the energizing effects of coffee are due to caffeine, this nifty little chemical:
I could write so much more about coffee, including why it can be both good or bad for you in the long-term. I could also write about my favorite caffeinated beverage, green tea, and its incredible benefits, but I'll be lazy and leave it to these links. After all, it's past midnight, and my 7 AM cup 'o Joe has long since worn off.
Images courtesy Gourmet Coffee is Better, Sunshine Green, Flower Encyclopedia, Gimme Coffee, How Stuff Works, The Nutrition Post, Lifestyle Bulletin
Cocker PJ, Hosking JG, Benoit J, & Winstanley CA (2012). Sensitivity to Cognitive Effort Mediates Psychostimulant Effects on a Novel Rodent Cost/Benefit Decision-Making Task. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology PMID: 22453140
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