U.S. Army develops algorithm for getting ‘optimal alertness’ from caffeine

Caffeine is consumed by some 90% of Americans every day, but not everyone is getting the most of its stimulating effects.


Everyone knows a morning cup of coffee helps you stay focused throughout the day, even after a bad night’s sleep.

But what’s not obvious is when and how much you should consume to achieve the best effects. That’s the focus of a new study funded by the U.S. Army and published in the Journal of Sleep Research.

Caffeine is the most widely used stimulant in the world, consumed in some form by some 90 percent of Americans each day. Studies have shown it reliably boosts performance among sleep-deprived people on cognitive tasks, even after long periods of restricted sleep. The downside is that caffeine, especially high amounts consumed over several days, can prevent sleep-deprived people from making up lost sleep, a measure known as ‘sleep debt’.

The researchers behind the new study aimed to find the optimal balance between the amount of caffeine and the time it’s administered. To do so, they used data from four past caffeine-sleep studies and inputted them into an algorithm built on the unified model of performance, which is a mathematical model that accurately predicts the effects of sleep–wake schedules and caffeine consumption on simple neurobehavioral tasks.

The team, led by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command’s Dr. Jaques Reifman, ran thousands of simulations across a wide range of doses and sleep-wake schedules.

“We found that by using our algorithm, which determines when and how much caffeine a subject should consume, we can improve alertness by up to 64 percent, while consuming the same total amount of caffeine,” Reifman told Science Daily. “Alternatively, a subject can reduce caffeine consumption by up to 65 percent and still achieve equivalent improvements in alertness.”

The algorithm could someday be used, for instance, by college students who want to know when they should consume caffeine “so you are as alert as possible during the exam,” Reifman told Live Science.

The optimal caffeine dose amounts and times depended on each individual scenario, so there’s no universal recommendation for when and much caffeine to consume. However, the U.S. Army is reportedly using the algorithm in experiments with soldiers in an effort to improve sleep health in the military, an organization in which sleep deprivation is a constant and often unavoidable problem.

The base algorithm looks like this:


If that's not your cup of joe, a simplified version of the algorithm is available to the public through the 2B-Alert app, which lets users enter their sleep schedules and caffeine intake to find out when and how much caffeine they should consume.


​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

Is this why time speeds up as we age?

We take fewer mental pictures per second.

(MPH Photos/giphy/yShutterstock/Big Think)
Mind & Brain
  • Recent memories run in our brains like sped-up old movies.
  • In childhood, we capture images in our memory much more quickly.
  • The complexities of grownup neural pathways are no match for the direct routes of young brains.
Keep reading Show less

Trauma in childhood leads to empathy in adulthood

It's not just a case of "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

Mind & Brain

  • A new study suggests children who endure trauma grow up to be adults with more empathy than others.
  • The effect is not universal, however. Only one kind of empathy was greatly effected.
  • The study may lead to further investigations into how people cope with trauma and lead to new ways to help victims bounce back.
Keep reading Show less

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.