Fun Facts: August 2023

Pharmacy TimesAugust 2023
Volume 89
Issue 8


Does the caffeine in coffee actually make you more energized in the morning?

Waiter in black apron stretches a cup of coffee | Image credit: Omad_Soul -

Waiter in black apron stretches a cup of coffee | Image credit: Omad_Soul -


It can, but that kick start is also linked to psychological factors. The physical act of drinking a morning cup of coffee may contribute to the energy buzz that is often associated with caffeine, according to a recent paper published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.1

“There is a common expectation, namely among habitual coffee drinkers, that coffee increases alertness and psychomotor functioning,” the investigators wrote in the article.1 “For these reasons, many individuals keep drinking coffee to counteract fatigue, stay alert, increase cognitive performance, and increase work efficiency.”

Caffeine has a psychoactive effect on brain metabolism and executive memory. Neurobiologically, the compound also affects brain functional connectivity and drives emotionality, alertness, and action readiness.1

However, other factors may also be at play. The psychology behind needing that morning cup of joe is still largely debated. Previous study findings suggest that the caffeine in coffee may be reversing feelings of withdrawal after having not had it for a short period of time. Others indicate that caffeine simply reduces lethargy.2

To get more clarity, investigators from Portugal compared the effects of a standardized cup of coffee (8 oz, or approximately 80-100 mg of caffeine) with a similar amount of caffeine diluted in hot water. They compared the effects on alertness and psychomotor functioning in a cohort of habitual coffee drinkers.1,2

Coffee and the diluted caffeine drink both facilitated feelings of wakefulness and alertness and enabled participants to move from rest to work more easily, according to data from functional MRI collected before and after the participants consumed either beverage.2

But only coffee enhanced the functional connectivity of 2 networks in the frontal lobes of the brain—the higher visual network (responsible for visual processing) and right executive control network (responsible for working memory, cognitive control, and goal-directed behavior). These networks are linked to cognitive control, visual imagery, and imaginary sensations that trigger pleasure.1

These findings suggest that the act of drinking coffee, which is a sensory experience, may trigger pleasure that is not produced by the neurochemical caffeine. Further, habitual coffee consumption appears to “prepare [consumers] for action,” study authors wrote.2

“In simple words, the [participants] were more ready for action and alert to external stimuli after having coffee,” first author Maria Picó-Pérez, PhD, of Jaume I University in Spain, said in a press release.3

The Role of the Placebo Effect

The placebo effect occurs when an individual responds to something that should not have any type of positive impact on the body; rather, the brain tricks the body into thinking something works.4

A placebo is commonly used in clinical trials as a comparator to an active treatment. Comparing the patient outcomes of placebo versus active treatment can help investigators determine how well the active treatment works, but ongoing research suggests that placebos can sometimes be as effective as real treatments. This may partially explain coffee’s ability to improve alertness and action readiness.1,4

Investigators did not directly study this outcome’s association with coffee intake, but their findings may allude to a similar outcome. The ritualistic act of drinking coffee stimulates the brain with visual imagery and other sensory effects to make the consumer feel ready for action without the use of caffeine, which has an established neurochemical effect.1

On a similar note, coffee may improve alertness and action because it influences a consumer’s belief that the coffee will work. Upon smelling or tasting coffee, coffee influences the “psychological expectation associated with consuming that drink,” Picó-Pérez said in the press release.3


  1. Picó-Pérez M, Magalhães R, Esteves M, Vieira R, et al. Coffee consumption decreases the connectivity of the posterior default mode network (DMN) at rest. Front Behav Neurosci. Published online June 28, 2023.doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2023.1176382
  2. Royle OR. That morning coffee you swear by may not do what you think it does, neuroscience study finds. Fortune. June 28, 2023. Accessed June 30, 2023.
  3. That essential morning coffee may be a placebo. News release. EurekAlert. June 28, 2023. Accessed July 13, 2023.
  4. Marshall M. A placebo can work even when you know it’s a placebo. Harvard Health Blog. July 7, 2016. Accessed July 3, 2023.
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