Caffeine: a different line of defence

Australian Army soldiers from 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, onboard a Royal Australian Air Force C-130J Hercules aircraft en route to Exercise Northern Shield 2016. © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence. SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Australian Army soldiers from 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, onboard a Royal Australian Air Force C-130J Hercules aircraft en route to Exercise Northern Shield 2016. © Commonwealth of Australia, Department of Defence.

Most people have turned to coffee to get them through a long day at work; but what role could caffeine play in the performance and safety of military personnel who must stay awake for extended periods during military operations?

UniSA researchers Dr Siobhan Banks and Dr Chris Della Vedova from the School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences, have been investigating the impact of night-time caffeine consumption during 50 hour periods of being awake.

“It’s not uncommon for military personnel to be involved in operations that extend past 24 hours,” Dr Banks says.

“Long shifts mean sleep deprivation and working through the night at an adverse circadian phase, both of which are associated with various performance impairments, such as decreased reaction time, decreased vigilance and increased sleepiness.

“Sleep loss associated with extended shifts has been found to lead to increased risk of fatigue-related incidents within the military.

“Caffeine is obviously a popular fatigue countermeasure so we want to find out more about its effects.”

Their study looks at the best times to give caffeine to battle tiredness.

While caffeine reduced subjective sleepiness and performance on the first sleep-deprived night, caffeine administration on the second night did not improve how tired subjects actually felt.

“These results demonstrate that while caffeine may be protective against performance impairment, it is less protective in regards to feelings of sleepiness and fatigue,” Dr Banks says.

And while the most obvious source of caffeine is coffee, researchers used caffeinated gum, a faster acting source which takes only 10 minutes to be absorbed by the brain and lasts for 90 minutes.

In another study Dr Banks looked at how caffeine can affect sleep after a long awake period. The study found that while caffeine consumption may impact on the quality of sleep for a short period of the recovery sleep, it does not severely impact sleep initiation, consolidation or sleep structure after being awake for 50 hours.

“This means caffeine can be used as a fatigue countermeasure in situations where work hours last 50 hours, without concern that it will adversely impact daytime recovery sleep,” Dr Banks says.

The caffeine studies are just some of the many collaborative projects UniSA researchers are working on with defence agencies, which examine a whole range of significant human factors to ultimately protect and improve conditions for the men and women who serve the nation.  To read more about these projects, go to the latest edition of enterprise magazine online.

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