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Placebo effect can be found in a cup of coffee


The best part of waking up is placebo in your cup

Coffee makes the world go round. It’s impossible to picture any workplace without a cast of forlorn characters huddled around the office coffee maker on a Monday morning, imbibing their beverage du jour until they’ve been lifted out of their semi-zombified stupor.


Millions upon millions of people swear by their morning coffee. And if they don’t get that sweet, sweet caffeine boost, they’ll make Garfield and the Boomtown Rats’ opinions of Mondays look tame. And it only makes sense that they’d believe that. After all, caffeine is a stimulant. It helps your brain focus and kicks it into overdrive. Of course drinking a beverage full of caffeine wakes you up. Right?

Not so fast, a group of Portuguese researchers say. That morning cup of coffee? It may actually be a placebo. Cue the dramatic sound effect.

Here’s the scoop: After recruiting a group of coffee drinkers (at least one cup a day), the researchers kept their test subjects off of coffee for at least 3 hours, then performed a brief functional MRI scan on all test subjects. Half an hour later, study participants received either a standard cup of coffee or pure caffeine. Half an hour after consuming their respective study product, the subjects underwent a second MRI.

As expected, both people who consumed coffee and those who consumed pure caffeine showed decreased connectivity in the default mode network after consumption, indicating preparation in the brain to move from resting to working on tasks. However, those who had pure caffeine did not show increased connectivity in the visual and executive control networks, while those who had coffee did. Simply put, caffeine may wake you up, but it doesn’t make you any sharper. Only coffee gets you in shape for that oh-so-important Monday meeting.

This doesn’t make a lot of sense. How can the drug part of coffee not be responsible for every effect the drink gives you? That’s where the placebo comes in, according to the scientists. It’s possible the effect they saw was caused by withdrawal – after just 3 hours? Yikes, hope not – but it’s more likely it comes down to psychology. We expect coffee to wake us up and make us ready for the day, so that’s exactly what it does. Hey, if that’s all it takes, time to convince ourselves that eating an entire pizza is actually an incredibly effective weight loss tool. Don’t let us down now, placebo effect.

Bread, milk, toilet paper, AFib diagnosis

Now consider the shopping cart. It does its job of carrying stuff around the store well enough, but can it lift you out of a semi-zombified stupor in the morning? No. Can it identify undiagnosed atrial fibrillation? Again, no.

Gustavo Fring

Not so fast, say the investigators conducting the SHOPS-AF (Supermarket/Hypermarket Opportunistic Screening for Atrial Fibrillation) study. They built a better shopping cart. Except they call it a trolley, not a cart, since the study was conducted in England, where they sometimes have funny names for things.

Their improved shopping trolley – we’re just going to call it a cart from here on – has an electrocardiogram sensor embedded into the handlebar, so it can effectively detect AFib in shoppers who held it for at least 60 seconds. The sensor lights up red if it detects an irregular heartbeat and green if it does not. Let’s see a cup of coffee do that.

They put 10 of these modified carts in four supermarkets in Liverpool to see what would happen. Would shoppers be able to tell that we secretly replaced the fine coffee they usually serve with Folger’s crystals? Oops. Sorry about that. Coffee on the brain, apparently. Back to the carts.

A total of 2,155 adult shoppers used one of the carts over 2 months, and electrocardiogram data were available for 220 participants who either had a red light on the sensor and/or an irregular pulse that suggested atrial fibrillation. After further review by the SHOPS-AF cardiologist, AFib was diagnosed in 59 shoppers, of whom 39 were previously undiagnosed.

They’re already working to cut the scan time to 30 seconds for SHOPS-AF II, but we’re wondering about a possible flaw in the whole health-care-delivery-through-shopping-cart scenario. When we go to the local super/hyper/megamart, it seems like half of the people trundling up and down the aisles are store employees filling orders for customers who won’t even set foot inside. Is the shopping cart on its way out? Maybe. Who wants to tell the SHOPS-AF II team? Not us.


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