Energy drinks, packed with caffeine, sugar and vitamin blends, appear to provide not much more of a brain boost than a good old cup of Joe.
New research by a Centre College behavioral neuroscience professor and her students found energy drinks, the go-to caffeine delivery device favored by many students, ranked side by side with plain old caffeine in a study of brain activity.
"There was no statistical difference," said KatieAnn Skogsberg, an assistant professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at Centre.
Research subjects were all given a grape-flavored purple drink. In one group the drink included caffeine and vitamins to mimic an energy drink. A second group was given the drink laced with just caffeine and a third was given grape-flavored drinks.
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The study was focused on brain waves, not caffeine's impact on overall health, Skogsberg said. Aware of the jolt too much caffeine can cause, Skogsberg said the amount of caffeine given to test subjects was calibrated by their weight.
All the subjects were asked to complete a task while their brain waves were measured by a electroencephalograph machine. The study showed the brain activity elevated in both groups who received caffeine as compared to the group that didn't, Skogsberg said. But that brain activity between the buzzed groups was nearly the same.
The research has created some interest, including being honored by a recent meeting of the Kentucky Psychological Association, Skogsberg said. It has also been presented as a student project at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science in Washington, D.C.
One reason people are interested in the study is that there is so little scientific research about energy drinks, she said.
Stephanie Fabritius, vice president for academic affairs, dean of the college, and professor of biology and behavioral neuroscience at Centre, is pleased with Centre's involvement in the research.
"While these results are all very preliminary at this time, it's important that our undergraduate students at Centre College have the opportunity to engage in meaningful research projects like this alongside their professors," she said.
"These kinds of experiences are simply transformational. In this case, they have also had the opportunity to see strong interest in even very preliminary findings."
Centre's original study included 31 students, and that number is being expanded before the research is submitted for publication in a scientific journal, she said. Skogsberg is planning to study how brain patterns change when people think they are receiving an energy drink or caffeine when they are instead being given a placebo.
And to think, this all started in a check-out line. While waiting to pay for groceries one day, Skogsberg's husband asked her whether she thought energy drinks really worked.
"I could test it," she said.
And now she has.
"You never know what is going to strike your imagination," she said. "Everything is a hypothesis to be tested."