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The US Army’s new algorithm tells you how much caffeine will hit your body’s peak performance

A cup of coffee is served at a coffee shop in Caracas February 26, 2015. Venezuela, once a proud exporter of premium coffee, has been reduced to swapping crude oil for growing volumes of Nicaraguan coffee beans to make sure worsening economic turmoil does not prevent people from getting their caffeine fix. For the first time on record, coffee imports this year will exceed the bean output of Venezuela's centuries-old coffee industry, according to U.S. government estimates. The South American country's shift from net coffee exporter to substantial importer has altered flows in regional markets, boosting prices for some varieties of coffee. Picture taken February 26, 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Silva (VENEZUELA - Tags: SOCIETY FOOD BUSINESS COMMODITIES) - GM1EB3201W601
Reuters/Jorge Silva
  • Michael J. Coren
By Michael J. Coren

Climate and emerging industries editor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The Army wants you….awake. Since at least WWII, US military scientists have been tinkering with the human brain to keep pilots, soldiers and staff alert despite lack of sleep. Their enemies have as well: The Nazis infamously plied their ranks with methamphetamines (also known as speed).

But how can people stay awake safely (and ethically)? Few substances are as safe as caffeine used daily by 85% of the US population. Researcher Jaques Reifman, who works on high-performance biotechnology software for the US Army, sought to design an algorithm for caffeine-dosing strategies. His research, accepted into the peer-reviewed Journal of Sleep Research, developed software to learn people’s unique physiology and determine how best to counter lack of sleep under any conditions.

The Army’s plan was to develop a tool that prescribes exactly how much caffeine to consume, and when, to achieve optimal performance, Reifman said in an interview.

Caffeine affects everyone differently. Our bodies have unique metabolisms, while sleep patterns alter caffeine’s effects. To account for this, Reifman and his collaborators administered about a dozen brief response time tests, known as a psychomotor vigilance task (PVT), that informed algorithms assessing the optimal caffeine strategy to maximize alertness at precise times.

The researchers sought to improve on caffeine dosing strategies from six previously published experiments. They administered PVTs over two days to assess an individual’s caffeine response profile, and logged their sleeping schedule. The algorithm, the study found, could design caffeine consumption schedules that achieved similar results with 65% less of the substance or enhance performance by up to 64% with comparable amounts.

While not standard issue for today’s soldiers, Reifman said the algorithm is now being assessed with soldiers in training. Civilians may need to wait a bit longer to tailor their own caffeine consumption. While the Army intends to license the technology, the only public option available now is the 2B-Alert website, which is based on related research. Because it doesn’t integrate testing performance, 2B-Alert isn’t personalized. But Reifman hopes the research will ultimately benefit anyone—shift workers, trucker drivers, nurses, doctors—who need to keep going through the night and day.

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

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