Drinking coffee can change the structure of your BRAIN: Regular caffeine consumption reduces the volume of grey matter – but 10 days without lattes reverses the effect

  • University of Basel researchers investigated caffeine’s impact on grey matter
  • Grey matter volume was reduced after 10 days of 450 mg daily caffeine intake 
  • Caffeine is the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive substance, they say
  • Another Aussie study this week reveals dangers of heavy caffeine consumption 

Regular caffeine intake reduces the volume of grey matter in the brain, suggesting coffee intake could impair out information processing ability, a new study shows.

Swiss researchers gave volunteers three 150 mg servings of caffeine a day for 10 days – a caffeine intake equating to about four or five small cups of brewed coffee a day, or seven single espressos.  

They found a reduction in grey matter, which is mostly found on the outer-most layer of the brain, or cortex, and serves to process information.

The reduction was particularly striking in the right medial temporal lobe, including the hippocampus, a region of the brain that is essential to memory consolidation. 

However, the effect appeared to be temporary – just 10 days without any caffeine reversed the changes.  

Caffeine is the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive substance. Researchers from the University of Basel have now shown in a study that regular caffeine intake can change the gray matter of the brain

‘Our results do not necessarily mean that caffeine consumption has a negative impact on the brain,’ said Dr Carolin Reichert at the University of Basel. 

‘But daily caffeine consumption evidently affects our cognitive hardware, which in itself should give rise to further studies.’ 

The researchers’ study had aimed to assess the impact of coffee consumption on sleep if consumed in the evening. 

Sleep deprivation can in turn reduced the volume of the brain’s grey matter, as previous studies have shown. 

Grey matter refers to the parts of the central nervous system made up primarily of the cell bodies of nerve cells, while white matter mainly comprises the neural pathways, the long extensions of the nerve cells. 

Grey matter is mostly found on outer-most layer of the brain, or cortex, and serves to process information


According to the US’s federal dietary guidelines, three to five 8-ounce cups of coffee per day can be part of a healthy diet – but this guidance only refers to plain black coffee. 

An 8-ounce cup equates to around 240ml – just under half a pint – and is about the capacity of a small serving of coffee in the UK. 

The average cup of coffee contains about 90mg of caffeine, depending on the type of coffee and how it’s made, according to the British Dietetic Association (BDA). 

‘A double espresso, the typical base for many coffee shop coffees, will contain about 125mg and the more shots you have in your coffee means that you will get more caffeine,’ the BDA says. 

Health organisations around the world suggest that most people can safely consume up to 300mg of caffeine a day. 

In addition, despite its benefits, research has shown that caffeine also can be dangerous if consumed in excess. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that, in general, children should avoid coffee and any beverages with caffeine in them. 

The American Heart Association also warns that popular coffee-based drinks such as lattes and macchiatos are often high in calories, added sugar and fat – which effectively overrides any benefits of the black stuff. 

For the experiments, a group of 20 healthy young individuals, all of whom regularly drank coffee on a daily basis, took part in the study. 

They were given three 150 mg caffeine tablets a day to take over a 10-day period, and were asked not to consume any other caffeine during this time. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, up to 400 milligrams of caffeine per day is considered safe for most adults, and a brewed 8-ounce (237ml) cup of coffee contains 96 milligrams. 

An 8-ounce cup equates to around 240ml – just under half a pint – and is about the capacity of a small serving of coffee in the UK.

Therefore, the volunteers’ daily caffeine dosage (450 mg) was just under what you would get five small brewed coffees (480 mg). 

Caffeine levels in coffee vary depending on the preparation method – they tend to be lower in espresso coffee. 

During another 10-day period, volunteers also received placebo tablets of the same dosage, with no active ingredient. 

At the end of each 10-day period, the researchers examined the volume of the subjects’ grey matter by means of brain scans. 

They also investigated the participants’ sleep quality using electroencephalography (EEG), a method of recording electrical activity of the brain that involves electrodes placed along the scalp. 

Although the researchers observed changes in grey matter, surprisingly, caffeine consumed as part of the study did not result in poor sleep. 

Data comparison revealed that the participants’ depth of sleep was equal, regardless of whether they had taken the caffeine or the placebo capsules. 

But they saw a significant difference in the grey matter, depending on whether the subject had received caffeine or the placebo. 

After 10 days of placebo, the volume of grey matter was greater than following the same period of time with caffeine capsules. 

Although caffeine appeared to reduce the volume of grey matter, after just 10 days of coffee abstinence with the placebo it had significantly regenerated. 

Information provided by the Mayo Clinic shows how caffeine amounts vary for different types of coffee and preparation methods

‘The changes in brain morphology seem to be temporary, but systematic comparisons between coffee drinkers and those who usually consume little or no caffeine have so far been lacking,’ said Reichert.

In the past, the health effects of caffeine have been investigated primarily in patients, but there is also a need for research on healthy subjects.

The study has been published in the journal Cerebral Cortex. 

In more coffee-related research this week, Aussie experts have found that long-term, heavy coffee consumption – six or more cups a day – can increase the amount of fats in your blood.

While several studies have pulled in different directions regarding the health impacts of coffee and caffeine, the study researchers warn this heightens the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).  

‘There’s certainly a lot of scientific debate about the pros and cons of coffee,’ said study author Professor Elina Hyppönen at the University of South Australia.

‘But while it may seem like we’re going over old ground, it’s essential to fully understand how one of the world’s most widely consumed drinks can impact our health.’

Professor Hyppönen and her colleague Ang Zhou looked at genetic and phenotypic associations between coffee intake and plasma lipid profiles – the cholesterols and fats in blood.

The study, published in Clinical Nutrition, used data from 362,571 UK Biobank participants, aged between 37 and 73 years. 

Not only did they find a link between the two, but causal evidence that habitual coffee consumption contributes to an adverse lipid (fat) profile.

Coffee beans contain a very potent cholesterol-elevating compound called cafestol, which mainly present in unfiltered brews, such as French press, Turkish and Greek coffees, but also in espressos.

Espressos are the base for most barista-made coffees, including lattes and cappuccinos. If you order a coffee on the high street, you’re likely to be served an espresso, whether it’s with or without milk.

It’s therefore wise to choose filtered coffee when possible and be wary of overindulging in the drink, even if it powers us through the working day. 

If you’ve bought a coffee from a high street store, it’s likely contained a shot of espresso. A very potent cholesterol-elevating compound called cafestol is mainly present in espressos, which is the base for most barista-made coffees, including lattes and cappuccinos, as well as unfiltered brews, such as French press, Turkish and Greek coffees

‘There is no, or very little cafestol in filtered and instant coffee, so with respect to effects on lipids, those are good coffee choices,’ said Professor Hyppönen.

‘In my opinion it is especially important for people with high cholesterol or who are worried about getting heart disease to carefully choose what type of coffee they drink.’ 

Globally, an estimated 3 billion cups of coffee are consumed every day. 

Cardiovascular diseases are the number one cause of death globally, taking an estimated 17.9 million lives each year.   

Only last week, yet another team reported that just one cup of caffeinated coffee a day can decrease your long-term risk of heart failure by up to 12 per cent.  

The amount of caffeine in coffee beans tends to vary based on size, origin and duration of roasting 

US experts looked at dietary information from three large-scale heart disease studies in the US, amounting to more than 21,000 US adults.  

Their findings add to a large body of evidence that coffee does indeed have health benefits – as long as it’s not consumed in excess or in combination with an abundance of sugar and cream.  

While this Us study appears to contradict Professor Hyppönen’s findings at first glance, the key difference seems to be overconsumption. 

‘Of course, unless we know otherwise, the well-worn adage usually fares well – everything in moderation,’ Professor Hyppönen said. 

‘When it comes to health, this is generally good advice.’ 

In 2019, a study by the University of South Australia found drinking more than six cups a day increased the risk of heart disease by 22 per cent. 

The year before, American College of Cardiology research revealed drinking three cups of coffee daily can lower palpitation risks by 13 per cent – and that up to six cups a day are safe.  


Caffeine has been deemed safe for consumption in doses of up to 400 mg per day for the general population. 

Studies suggest it can have a variety of health benefits, including combating liver disease and type two diabetes.

Research has even suggested it could even help people live longer.

It is the world’s most widely consumed stimulant and reports show it can boost daily energy expenditure by around five per cent.

Researchers have said combining two to four daily coffees with regular exercise would be even more effective at keeping the weight off.

A 2015 study showed just a couple of cups a day could help millions of dieters stay trim once they have achieved their desired weight. 

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