Student News

Molecule of the Week: Caffeine

Communications – May 1, 2012

Everyday at Deerfield, students line up in the Koch Café to order their daily hit of the world’s most popular drug: caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant found in sodas, coffee, tea, and chocolate. In its pure form, the compound is a bitter white solid with the molecular formula C8H10N4O2. The molecule is produced by over 60 types of plants and can kill or paralyze certain parasite insects.

To understand how caffeine keeps us awake, we first have to understand what makes us sleepy. Drowsiness is induced by chemicals such as adenosine that alter brain activity. Adenosine accumulates in the muscles and brain during the day, and is reduced during sleep. It binds to specific adenosine receptors and inhibits the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with the brain’s ‘reward pathway.’ This decreases brain activity and slows down reactions in neural cells, causing drowsiness. Caffeine reduces the effects of adenosine by binding with adenosine receptors; these receptors fill up with caffeine, so adenosine cannot bind with them. Although caffeine is similar enough to adenosine to fool the receptors, it has the opposite effect on cell activity and dopamine levels. So by reducing the amount of adenosine that binds with brain cells, and counteracting its effects, caffeine prevents the feeling of tiredness. And its effects don’t stop there; caffeine also causes the brain to release adrenaline – the ‘fight or flight’ hormone – which increases heart rate and prepares the body for an attack.

While caffeine does spike adrenaline levels and gives us an extra boost in the morning, it can have some downsides; the highly addictive drug may cause short term side effects like fidgeting, irritability, and gastrointestinal disruption as well as more long term problems such as insomnia. And don’t forget, the ‘buzz’ you get from that early morning latte is always followed by a low point right around third period…

Images: Wikipedia, The Tech Herald