Examining the neurobiology of caffeine withdrawal

By Bryan Goodchild and Ellie Castano

UMass Medical School Communications

June 17, 2013

The inclusion of caffeine withdrawal in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) has been widely questioned, since most adults consume caffeine in the form of coffee, tea and cola drinks without experiencing any negative side effects. While caffeine withdrawal is most often fleeting and relatively mild, neurobiologist José Lemos, PhD, believes it is a very real condition that can negatively impact a person’s ability to function, albeit for a short time, and therefore warrants inclusion in the DSM.

In this Expert’s Corner video, Dr. Lemos, who is professor of microbiology & physiological systems and biochemistry & molecular pharmacology, explains the neurobiology of caffeine withdrawal and says that symptoms can be akin to a migraine, including severe headache and nausea. Caffeine intake blocks adenosine receptors in the brain, causing blood vessels to constrict and neurons to fire more rapidly, which can lead to a heightened feeling of alertness. “When you withdraw caffeine—that’s the controversy—then there are going to be more adenosine receptors than normal. Adenosine does a number of things including causing tiredness and allowing more blood to flow through the brain,” Lemos explains. “If there is too much blood flow through the brain, it’s like a migraine.”