DJ's Reviews > Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine

Buzz by Stephen Braun
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May 09, 11

bookshelves: health, brain
Read in May, 2011

Clearly Braun is not familiar with the recipe for modern pop science texts. Where are the extrapolations from statistically insignificant correlations to bold sermons launching the next consumer craze? Why have they been replaced with tempered, conservative statements accurately reflecting the uncertainty of the scientific process and our current state of knowledge?

Genre-bending accuracy aside, Buzz is a handy user manual for the human body and the two drugs you almost certainly abuse it with - caffeine and alcohol. Braun employs an entertaining, Magic School Bus-style strategy of conveying the science from the point of view of our molecular stars as they journey through your poor unsuspecting body. If you maintain a healthy information diet (or frequently [ab]use either substance), you are unlikely to find many stunning surprises in the discussion of behavioral consequences (Egads! Alcohol disrupts learning and proper sleep and caffeine improves cognitive speed on mundane tasks and is a mild diuretic?!), but the basic science behind their commercial production and effects on the human body offer a few fascinating tidbits:

1) Alcohols are actually a quite large family of molecules. The one you are most well-acquainted with and commonly refer to as "alcohol" is ethanol. However its not the only member of the family capable of getting you drunk. Methanol, just a carbon atom away from ethanol, can also induce intoxication. The reason you do not see methanol on the shelf at your liquor store, however, is that a methanol hangover comes with a slightly less appealing side effect than a mere hangover - permanent blindness. Methanol is broken down into formaldehyde by an enzyme that is found in your retina... and formaldehyde is not something you want your eyeball getting cozy with.

2) That most of the table wine you find weights in at 12% alcohol content is no coincidence; its a necessary condition of the production process. Ethanol is typically produced by the gasping breaths of suffocating yeast cells, and in a 12% ethanol bath, ethanol can no longer diffuse across the yeast cell wall, inducing the drowning cell to shut down.

3) Caffeine, contrary to popular belief, is not exactly brain fuel. It works by blocking the activity of adenosine, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that seems to build up in the body throughout the day. Thus caffeine works by "turning off the brake" rather than "hitting the accelerator." This is important because it makes it nigh impossible to overdose on caffeine. On the other hand, this means that if you are a lifeless drone devoid of passion, caffeine cannot rescue you.

One question I leave for researchers of caffeine is: does there exist a biochemical means by which caffeine might make us think or remember that we are/were much smarter under its guidance than we really are/were? Many claim to be granted creative superpowers by caffeine but current research has not been able to support these claims. Perhaps caffeine only increases our beliefs about our cognitive abilities and not our abilities per se.
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