Caffeine isn't actually going to help you combat sleep deprivation

Participants were asked to complete a simple attention task as well as a more challenging "placekeeping" task.

A woman in a white jacket sipping coffee in front of a black backdrop.
Photo by Jorge Franco on Unsplash

Relying on caffeine to get you through the day isn't always the answer, according to a new study.


The researchers assessed how effective caffeine was in counteracting the negative effects of sleep deprivation on cognition. As it turns out, caffeine can only get you so far.

The study in the most recent edition of Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition assessed the impact of caffeine after a night of sleep deprivation.

More than 275 participants were asked to complete a simple attention task as well as a more challenging "placekeeping" task that required completion of tasks in a specific order without skipping or repeating steps.

The study is the first to investigate the effect of caffeine on placekeeping after a period of sleep deprivation.

"We found that sleep deprivation impaired performance on both types of tasks and that having caffeine helped people successfully achieve the easier task. However, it had little effect on performance on the placekeeping task for most participants," says Kimberly Fenn, associate professor of psychology from Michigan State University's Sleep and Learning Lab.

"Caffeine may improve the ability to stay awake and attend to a task, but it doesn't do much to prevent the sort of procedural errors that can cause things like medical mistakes and car accidents," she adds.

Insufficient sleep is pervasive in the United States, a problem that has intensified during the pandemic, Fenn says. Consistently lacking adequate sleep not only affects cognition and alters mood, but can eventually take a toll on immunity.

"Caffeine increases energy, reduces sleepiness, and can even improve mood, but it absolutely does not replace a full night of sleep, Fenn says.

"Although people may feel as if they can combat sleep deprivation with caffeine, their performance on higher-level tasks will likely still be impaired. This is one of the reasons why sleep deprivation can be so dangerous."

Fenn says that the study has the potential to inform both theory and practice.

"If we had found that caffeine significantly reduced procedural errors under conditions of sleep deprivation, this would have broad implications for individuals who must perform high stakes procedures with insufficient sleep, like surgeons, pilots, and police officers," Fenn says. "Instead, our findings underscore the importance of prioritizing sleep."

Source: Michigan State University

Original Study DOI: 10.1037/xlm0001023

Reprinted with permission of Futurity. Read the original article.

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