A New Animation Explains How Caffeine Keeps Us Awake

Let’s preface this by recalling that Honoré de Balzac drank up to 50 cups of coffee a day and lived to the ripe old age of … 51.

Of course, he produced dozens of novels, plays, and short stories before taking his leave. Perhaps his caffeine habit had a little something to do with that?

Pharmacist Hanan Qasim’s TED-Ed primer on how caffeine keeps us awake top loads the positive effects of the most world’s commonly used psychoactive substance. Global consumption is equivalent to the weight of 14 Eiffel Towers, measured in drops of coffee, soda, chocolate, energy drinks, decaf…and that’s just humans. Insects get theirs from nectar, though with them, a little goes a very long, potentially deadly way.




Caffeine’s structural resemblance to the neurotransmitter adenosine is what gives it that special oomph. Adenosine causes sleepiness by plugging into neural receptors in the brain, causing them to fire more sluggishly. Caffeine takes advantage of their similar molecular structures to slip into these receptors, effectively stealing adenosine’s parking space.

With a bioavailability of 99%, this interloper arrives ready to party.

On the plus side, caffeine is both a mental and physical pick me up.

In appropriate doses, it can keep your mind from wandering during a late night study session.

It lifts the body’s metabolic rate and boosts performance during exercise—an effect that’s easily counteracted by getting the bulk of your caffeine from chocolate or sweetened soda, or by dumping another Eiffel Tower’s worth of sugar into your coffee.

There’s even some evidence that moderate consumption may reduce the likelihood of such diseases as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.

What to do when that caffeine effect starts wearing off?

Gulp down more!

As with many drugs, prolonged usage diminishes the sought-after effects, causing its devotees (or addicts, if you like) to seek out higher doses, negative side effects be damned. Nervous jitters, incontinence, birth defects, raised heart rate and blood pressure… it’s a compelling case for sticking with water.

Animator Draško Ivezić (a 3-latte-a-day man, according to his studio’s website) does a hilarious job of personifying both caffeine and the humans in its thrall, particularly an egg-shaped new father.

Go to TED-Ed to learn more, or test your grasp of caffeine with a quiz.

Related Content:

Wake Up & Smell the Coffee: The New All-in-One Coffee-Maker/Alarm Clock is Finally Here!

Physics & Caffeine: Stop Motion Film Uses a Cup of Coffee to Explain Key Concepts in Physics

This is Coffee!: A 1961 Tribute to Our Favorite Stimulant

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.


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