Is coffee the mother of alertness?

As the drinking of coffee is now a topical subject, I was intrigued to read that the US military is coming to the rescue of fatigued civilians with an algorithm that tells you exactly how much coffee to drink to maintain peak performance.

The caffeine optimisation tool has been designed to maximise alertness while avoiding excessive caffeine consumption.

Tests have suggested that the system, call 2B-Alert, easily outperforms the US army’s guidelines on caffeine use. It helped subjects to cut their caffeine intake by as much as two thirds without diminishing the alertness. The tool, available to use online, allows a user to specify their desirable peak alertness periods, then sleeping schedule, the minimum level of alertness they want to maintain and the maximum daily caffeine intake.

Jacques Reifman, a senior research scientist for the US army, said: “If you pull an all-nighter, need to be at peak alertness between say, 9am and 5pm, and desire to consume as little caffeine as possible – when and how much caffeine should you consume? This is the type of question 2B-Alert was designed to answer.”

For decades the US military has plied servicemen with amphetamines, steroids and painkillers in the name of improving performance. More recently it has turned to stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall in the hope of bolstering cognitive stamina and memory. But few substances have proved as useful in combating exhaustion and boredom as caffeine. The US army prizes its ability to improve risk-related judgement and impulsiveness during prolonged sleep deprivation. The ready meals provided to troops in battle have contained caffeine-fortified snacks such as beef jerky and apple sauce. The algorithm offers advice on when they should be consumed. For instance, an average person who gets six hours’ sleep, wakes at 7am and wants to be alert between 10.30am and 6.30pm is advised to consumed 200mg of caffeine – equal to about a large mug of filter coffee – at 10am and again at noon.

Tests suggest that the caffeine solutions proposed by the algorithm either required on average 40 percent less caffeine or enhanced alertness by 40 percent, compared with how US troops had used coffee. The research was published in the journal sleep. The High-Performance Computing Software Applications Institute of the US army has been working on the algorithm for several years. Its researcher had suggested that the algorithm could be embedded in a smartphone app that could be used by people who must deal with irregular hours. The institute has also created a “psycho-motor vigilant risk test” that measures the speed at which people respond to a visual stimulus and gauges how alert they are.

The researchers have suggested that this could be part of the app that also utilises sleep data from fitness tracking devices to general bespoke sleep and caffeine schedules.

This study is perhaps the most useful I’ve so far read which explains the very nature of the use of caffeine for alertness.


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