ROCKVILLE, Md. — The International Olympic Committee had yet another drug quandary. They didn’t understand the latest drug to pop up in their tests: modafinil, a wakefulness-promoting psycho-stimulant, so they asked David Dinges about it. Dinges, Ph.D., a professor and chief of the sleep and chronobiology division at the University of Pennsylvania, had published literature on the drug and studied it extensively.
The members of the committee said that if modafinil could enhance performance, they would strip the using athletes of their medals. Dinges said that it increases response time by no more than 10 milliseconds. For the committee, that was all they needed to hear.
Dinges couldn’t understand this contradictory decision. If the use of modafinil could result in such a consequence, why not treat caffeine users the same way? Caffeine, he said, does the exact same thing for response time.
The committee said that it wasn’t the same. Unlike modafinil, they couldn’t control caffeine. The Olympic stadium was filled with people using it.
Dinges shared this anecdote during his keynote speech at The Use and Biology of Energy Drinks: Current Knowledge and Critical Gaps, a conference held Thursday and Friday at the Neuroscience Center Building in Rockville, Md. to try to determine the extent of research into these kinds of drinks, which have come under increasing regulatory scrutiny of late.
The story outlined the general feeling of fellow scientists toward energy drinks: widely spread, hardly understood.
Dinges said that proof of the somewhat shallow understanding of caffeine can be exemplified by our daily routine. Why, he said, shortly after hours of sleep and restoring our body’s vitality, do we immediately reach for coffee?
The expansive panel of academics agreed that adolescents and children are prone to risk-taking behavior and are also most at risk by the effects of high caffeine doses.
“Children, as we all know, are a highly vulnerable population,” said Jag Khalsa, Ph.D., the chief of the medical consequences branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
But at this stage in the research of energy drinks, which have many poorly understood additives compared to coffee, the panel had more questions than answers.
“The question is,” Dinges said, “what happens if you have dose after dose after dose?”
The common sentiment was that more research is needed. They’re also not exactly sure of the appropriate dose size, what settings encourage energy drink use and when consumers should stop consuming energy drinks, among other research gaps.
Dinges, who studies circadian rhythms of sleep, said that when testing energy drinks, he asks test subjects about the latest hour they can consume energy drinks to ensure a good night of sleep. Sensible answers, he said, were 9 to 10 a.m. But other test subjects said 6 p.m. or so. Why?
The speakers agreed that consumers need to better understand exactly how much they’re ingesting. But the struggle to understand the appropriate dose size, some said, has been exacerbated by certain energy drink companies.
Emma L. Childs, Ph.D., a research associate in the psychology department at the University of Chicago, said that she had a hard time simply finding the caffeine content of widely consumed energy drinks such as 5-hour Energy and Monster, among others.
What’s making the conference’s topic more of a flashpoint is that the knowledge gap hasn’t decreased the demand for energy drinks — nor for caffeine. Khalsa said that about 85-90 percent of people worldwide consume caffeine every day.
“A common belief is that a natural compound is safe,” Khalsa said.
He then mentioned marijuana and cocaine; also natural compounds. Khalsa and others at the conference said that society’s acceptance of caffeine has been elevated more by perception and less by understanding.
“It makes us kind of comfortable with the substance,” said Antonia Mattia, Ph.D., director of the biotechnology division and GRAS notice review at the Food and Drug Administration.
While the majority of speakers illustrated the potential risks of energy drinks, especially when mixed with alcoholic drinks, Dinges reminded the room that good scientists consider both sides of the argument. He admitted that he’s been drinking coffee for many years.
He also said that there could be healthy benefits of caffeine.
Regardless of the potentially healthy benefits — or downsides — Dinges said that there’s no wonder why so many people rely on caffeine and energy drinks. Our society has created the demand for energy; constant travel, long hours of work, less sleep, he said.
“We’re way past staying within our biological limits,” Dinges said.