In your brain, you hold different kinds of memories - short and long term. Some memories you will forget, and some seem to be burned in your brain forever. How do certain memories get locked into your mind? It happens through a process called memory consolidation. (It becomes one of those things that you’ll never forget).
As with anything in your brain, there is a process to this happening and there also might be a way in which you can support this process - through increasing BDNF with caffeine, followed up by relaxation.
In 2014, researchers from Johns Hopkins University published a study in Nature Neuroscience. In this study, they looked at whether caffeine could improve long-term memory by enhancing memory consolidation. Previous studies had not been successful in identifying a link between consuming caffeine, and improvements in long term memory. Dr. Borota, from Johns Hopkins, and his colleagues thought that the problem with previous research was the timing of the caffeine. It had always been given before someone was going to study something that they needed to learn. In the practical sense, this is how many people would use caffeine. Drink coffee and study. That was pretty much my daily routine for the 4.5 years of my PhD work (and students all over the world for that matter!). Dr. Borota and his colleagues decided to go counterculture and look at the impact of caffeine after the task learning was completed.
They had participants study test material (images of objects - exciting stuff!), then they gave them caffeine in a variety of dosages, or a placebo. Finally, they had them come back 24 hours later to participant in a variety of tests which would identify memory and information retention in different parts of their brain.
This study also found that more caffeine is not necessarily better, but instead there was a sweet spot for caffeine consumption around 200mg (looking at the data, it is probably in the range of 150-250mg which is the amount found in a regular sized cup of coffee).
Do you really need to take caffeine afterwards to see these benefits?
The Johns Hopkins team ran a subsequent study where they gave people caffeine one hour prior to the learning exercise, and found that these people performed no differently than the people given the placebo - with respects to improvements in long term memory.
These findings are fascinating and very relevant to coffee drinkers looking to improve their memory (have you ever met someone that wasn’t interesting in improving their memory?) but I think we can supercharge these effects with the following two additions.
Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF, is a protein produced in your body that is responsible for growing and fixing neurons. Dr. John Ratey, a neuropsychiatrist from Harvard calls BDNF “miracle-gro for the brain” because of studies that showed when scientists put BDNF on nerve cells, they began to grow.
When people talk about BDNF, they are usually talking about it in the context of aging. As we get older, our body produces less and less BDNF. Low levels of BDNF are associated with conditions like dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, age-related memory loss, and even Parkinson’s disease. Essentially, the lack of BDNF inhibits the brain’s ability to heal itself (this is very simplified, but you get the picture).
I started to dig deep into the BDNF research, beyond the hundreds of papers looking at BDNF’s role in these conditions, to see what else BDNF influenced in the body.
I couldn’t be more excited when I uncovered BDNF’s role in the formation of memories.
At the surface level, it makes total sense that BDNF would help with the formation of memories. In order to make a memory, neurons in your brain need to grow to make those new connections, and BDNF drives neuron growth.
In an almost too comprehensive scientific review of BDNF’s role in memory, Dr. Lucas D. Pozzo-Millar, a neuroscientist at University of Alabama-Birmingham, notes that BDNF plays a role in "acquisition, consolidation, and subsequent recall of information.” This 24-page deep dive into the molecular interactions between BDNF and memory pathways in your mind emphasizes the fact that there is still a lot to learn about BDNF, the brain, and memory… However, the take home message is clear:
When it comes to learning (acquisition), storing (consolidation), and remembering (recall of information) information, your brain does better when BDNF is around to supercharge the process.
The next question would be - How can I increase BDNF?
The two most reliable ways to increase BDNF in your body are intense exercise and Neuro Coffee. First, let’s look at exercise.
Exercise is the most well known method of increasing BDNF levels. Much of the cognitive health benefits of exercise can be attributed to the increases in BDNF that occur with exercise. But not just any exercise will work to increase BDNF.
First, it is necessary that your exercise be of a sufficient intensity. One study, which included 33 young men, found that 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise (working out at an intensity level of 4 on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the most intense workout you’ve ever done) wasn’t able to yield a significant increase in BDNF for the group as a whole.
Another study, which was a mix of men and women, also found that 30 minutes of low/moderate intensity exercise was not sufficient to increase BDNF, while 30 minutes of intense exercise (8 out of 10 on the effort scale) would increase BDNF levels. The message here is that you gotta get after it in order to increase BDNF.
Is there a better way to exercise to get your BDNF fix?
In a 2015 study from Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers looked at the differences between these two kinds of cardio. First, here’s what they did:
Steady State Cardio Group - 20 minutes of cardio at 70% of maximum heart rate (this is working out at an intensity level of 8 on a scale of 1 to 10. This is rather intense and would be difficult to complete. You would have great difficulty talking).
Interval Cardio Group - 1 minute of intense cardio at 90% of maximum heart rate (at this intensity you are working so hard that you are not able to talk) followed by 1 minute of rest. This 1 minute on, 1 minute off sequence was repeated for 10 total rounds or 20 minutes of cardio.
The researchers found that both exercise methods produced increases in BDNF, but the interval cardio group produced higher peak levels of BDNF compared to the steady state workout. For what it’s worth, almost three-quarters of the subjects in the study preferred the interval cardio (which is surprising as the interval cardio protocol is miserably hard!).
I will never discount the benefits of regular exercise. I think that increasing BDNF through exercise is an excellent strategy (one that I employ several days a week). But we don’t often have the time or shower facilities needed to bust out 20 minutes of high intensity intervals before we need to remember whatever information is put in front of us.
Neuro Coffee is the ultimate coffee biohack (Yes, I’m totally biased as I created Neuro Coffee, but please read on - even with a healthy amount of skepticism). Neuro Coffee contains a unique antioxidant extract from the coffee fruit (the part that is usually discarded in the coffee fields upon picking). This whole fruit extract has been shown in 2 separate studies to significantly increase BDNF levels in the body. Because coffee is a natural source of caffeine, it makes it an excellent delivery system for the coffee fruit extract when improving memory and retention is the goal (remember the effects of caffeine on memory from above).
Increasing BDNF with Neuro Coffee is as simple as putting the Neuro Coffee pod in your k-cup/single serve coffee brewer, hitting go and drinking it.
However, timing your caffeine intake to be after you are done learning, while also increasing BDNF, aren’t the only things that you can do in order to maximize your ability.
We often associate stress as being a big driver of long term memory consolidation, but as with anything, dose is key. A very traumatic event is an extreme example of stress causing memory consolidation. The stress associated with this kind of memory formation is not something that anyone would voluntarily do, so that is not an option.
There are different kinds of stress. The type that affects us most often during the day is low to moderate levels of chronic stress. Unfortunately, this kind of stress is toxic to almost all of the systems in our body, including memory formation. A 2010 study from Neurobiology of Learning and Memory showed that learning while under unrelated stress, impaired memory formation.
What is unrelated stress? This is stress that is unrelated to the topic you are trying to learn. In the military, it is standard to provide simulated stresses of combat during training while the soldiers and sailors are learning.
Another example is if you are stressed about your finances and trying to learn how to navigate a new piece of software at work, the stress is going hinder your ability to remember how to navigate the software.
What is the opposite of stress? What is the thing that will actually improve the memory enhancing protocol that we have been developing throughout this article?
What is your next move?
A 2004 study from Neurobiology Learning and Memory, showed that 12 minutes of mental relaxation lead to greater memory retention after 4 weeks than in people who did not spend time to relax after learning something. Here is a simple meditation from the NY Times for drinking your coffee.
This is a perfect example of doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing in order to get ahead. Everyone is slogging down endless cups of coffee so that they can focus on what they are trying to do/learn. When they finish their task, in their still highly-caffeinated stressed out state, they rush to the next thing on their todo list.
This is not the way.
Instead, you’re going to sit and learn what you need to learn. After that, you’ll have one cup of Neuro Coffee (not four), giving yourself a moderate dose of caffeine (right in the sweet spot for memory enhancement as determined by the Borota study) and a clinically tested dose of concentrated whole coffee fruit extract to increase BDNF levels. As you slowly drink that cup of coffee, you are going to breathe and relax, giving what you just learned a chance to sink in.
To top it all off, be sure to get in three 20-minute high intensity interval training sessions to fortify the BDNF pumping effects of your daily Neuro Coffee.
That’s how you hack coffee to increase long term memory.