Douglas College Psychology grad’s researches caffeine perks

A Douglas College Psychology professor and grad have given coffee aficionados another reason to reach for a morning cup of Joe.

Nicole Vittoz and recent grad Iloradanon Efimoff, have researched the connection caffeine has to improving decision-making in college students as part of a project titled “Caffeine, glucose, and decision making.”

And the results are promising.

Based on the studies conducted with Douglas College students, Vittoz and Efimoff believe people who ingest caffeine will make less risky choices when in a decision-making situation.

“It can be surprising to some people,” Vittoz said.

Efimoff – who landed a job at UBC researching men’s health programs in the Downtown Eastside after graduation – and Vittoz are focusing on sharing the findings of their caffeine study. Efimoff has already presented at a student conference in Bellingham, WA., while Vittoz will be travelling to Chicago in late November for the international Society for Judgment and Decision Making conference.

Ultimately, the aim is to have their work shared in print.

“With any luck, we could have something published in a year,” Vittoz said.

Efimoff and fellow grad Sara Saeedi approached Vittoz with ideas on their honours research project – a part of the Bachelor of Arts in Applied Psychology degree program at Douglas College, which gives students the chance to apply their knowledge prior to graduation. This is the first year the honours program has existed.

While Efimoff wanted to focus on caffeine – after learning about stimulant drugs in the course Drugs and Behaviour, taught by Vittoz – Saeedi, who also holds a kinesiology degree, wanted to further research a study suggesting high-intensity exercise could lead to optimal decision making.

“I told my honours student that I really wanted them to focus on decision-making and judgment,” Vittoz explained. “Iloradanon thought “why not look into caffeine” so we did. There is lots of literature about how caffeine affects basic cognition, but there is not much information on how caffeine affects more complex situations.”

Knowing that with people with disorders such as Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder use stimulant drugs to focus, and referencing literature that noted drugs similar to amphetamines can help people with delayed discounting – where an immediate award is denied to gain a larger reward in the future – the duo began to work on their theory.

With more than 100 Douglas College students as their volunteers, two tasks were administered. Of the two, only one task was effected by caffeine.

Study subjects had four decks of cards put in front of them and were told to select a card from any of the decks and to repeat this process 100 times. After they had selected their card, they were given feedback and would either win or lose money.

“The idea is that the different decks have different probabilities of gains and losses,” Vittoz said of the study, which is also known as a gambling task. “What people are supposed to pick up on over time is that two decks are more risky than the others and two are safer.”

Those who gamble with a risky deck experienced big wins, but also big losses, while those who choose the more conservative desks come out ahead in the long-run.

Following the completion of the study, Vittoz and Efimoff realized that subjects who had caffeine pills pick up on the identity of the safer deck and stick with those decks, as opposed to those on placebo, who take longer to deduce which deck is safe and continue to experiment with the other options.

“You can speculate that caffeine is helping them pay attention and retain their memory, or maybe it’s helping them to reduce their impulsivity,” Vittoz said.

Saeedi’s study proved to be more difficult to track, as subjects were required to exercise at intense levels.

Based at the gym, two personal trainers stepped into the role as experimenter and research assistant and helped push the participants to achieve the high-intensity level needed.

Despite their efforts, there were no clear results found with the study.

“We ended up having a high-intensity exercise group and a low-intensity exercise group and a group that had just completed the questionnaire and tasks with no exercise,” Vittoz explained. “And we measured glucose before and after, and we found that if we didn’t take blood-glucose changes into account, there was no reliable group difference.”

Vittoz added that the blood glucose increases occurred in only half the participants who engaged in high-intensity exercise. This resulted in a sample that was too small to establish a statistically reliable trend.

“Unfortunately in this case, we couldn’t make any strong conclusions, but we think there is a strong future for this research. It’s something we could potentially pursue,” she said.

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