The Surprising Way Coffee Helps You Learn

Updated: Feb. 24, 2017

You know it's delicious and keeps you alert, but new findings show that coffee can also improve your memory. Who's up for a coffee break?

01_coffee_the_surprising_way_coffee_makes_you_learn_istock/elenaleonovaYour daily java fix may be fixing more than you know—in fact, it’s mending broken strands of DNA that are essential to learning. Apparently, each time you learn something new, your brain cells break their DNA, creating damage that the neurons must immediately repair, according to Li-Huei Tsai, PhD, the Picower professor of neuroscience and director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT. But as you age sometimes these repairs don’t take place fast enough, possibly causing memory loss and other forms of cognitive damage like dementia.

“When we are young, our brains create DNA breaks as we learn new things, but our cells are absolutely on top of this and can quickly repair the damage to maintain the functionality of the system,” Dr. Tsai told MIT News. “But during aging, and particularly with some genetic conditions, the efficiency of the DNA repair system is compromised, leading to the accumulation of damage, and in our view this could be very detrimental.”

Turns out sipping a cup of joe may help repair the damage faster. In a March 2016 study in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research, scientists showed that drinking coffee can reduce DNA breakage in as quickly as a two hours. In the study, a team from the University of Kaiserslautern in Germany gave 13 healthy males 200 milliliters of coffee four times over eight hours. Then blood samples were tested to judge their DNA integrity. The samples showed reduction in DNA breakage within two hours of coffee consumption. Within eight hours, there was up to 30 percent more damage reduction than baseline levels before the experiment.

Although the benefit of drinking coffee to protect and repair DNA strands needs further investigation, there are numerous studies that have already proven substantial health benefits from drinking coffee, including fighting type 2 diabetes, liver disease, and breast cancer.

If you like the idea of drinking coffee but it’s too tough on your tummy, there are new options out there, such cold brewed coffee, which has less acid but just as much caffeine. “Cold brewed coffee offers a smoother taste and is 65 percent less acidic than hot brewed coffee, making it a terrific option for both health and for taste,” says Josh Melzer of Epoca International Inc., maker of Primula coffee makers.

It’s still unclear how much coffee you need to drink to reap the memory-improving rewards, but in the meantime, it’s perfectly okay to indulge in several cups a day, as long as it’s not interfering with your sleep. Use these coffee-brewing secrets to make the perfect cuppa every time.