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Coffee's Aroma Stirs the Brain

What if merely waking up and smelling coffee powers up your brain, without ever taking a sip? Most people drink coffee for its taste and its caffeine jolt, but the smell may bring its own benefits.

New research is shedding light on how drinking and smelling coffee might affect genes and proteins in the brain.

Study authors, led by Han-Seouk Seo of Seoul National University, write that this is one of the first bits of research to look at how the smell of coffee affects us, or in this case how it affects lab rats, some of which had not gotten enough sleep.

"There are few studies that deal with the beneficial effects of coffee aroma," study authors write. "This study is the first effort to elucidate the effects of coffee bean aroma on the sleep deprivation-induced stress in the rat's brain."

Cue the lab rats and medium roasted Colombian coffee beans. Seo and colleagues from Japan and Germany tested how the smell of coffee affected the brains of adult male rats who were "stressed" with sleep restriction and those that were not stressed and compared it to two other groups of stressed and unstressed rats not exposed to coffee bean aroma.

Researchers examined the rats' brains to try to "unravel the molecular effects" of the smell of coffee on the brain. Here's some of what they found:

  • The coffee-sniffing sleep-deprived rats showed different levels of activity in 17 genes in the brain.

  • Levels of some brain proteins also changed in ways that could have a calming effect on stress or have antioxidant function.

Not that people are the same as sleep-deprived lab rats. Study authors surmise that if drinking caffeine causes stress associated with a loss of sleep, might it be better for folks to sniff coffee to help ease that stress?

Does this mean you could keep a bag of roasted coffee beans near your desk for that four o'clock slump, taking a whiff to perk you up? That remains to be answered.

The results appear in the June 25 issue of the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry.
By Kelley Colihan
Reviewed by Louise Chang
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