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UT Professors Study Students’ Perceptions of Energy Drinks

Published: September 08, 2009
UT professors Kim Curry and Michael Stasio are concerned about the mixing of energy drinks and alcohol on college campuses.

Born out of discussions from the two along with other members of UT’s Wellness committee, they’ve found that students may use energy drinks for a number of reasons—to improve concentration or to combat fatigue, for example. But what really interested Curry and Stasio were students’ perceptions that mixing energy drinks with alcohol lessened the effects of intoxication and made it safer to drink more.

“Clearly the goal of mixing the two is that they want to stay up and party more,” said Curry, associate director of the nursing department. “Caffeine can mask the effects of alcohol but it doesn’t mitigate them. There are still two elements affecting the body.”

Curry and Stasio launched a study in the fall of 2007, “The Effect of Energy Drinks Alone and with Alcohol on Neuropsychological Functioning,” which they completed in the spring of 2008 and published the results this July in Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental.

In the study, 27 UT students, all over 21 years old, were randomly assigned to three groups: one received an energy drink alone, the second got a pre-mixed energy drink plus alcohol and the third group received a placebo of Diet 7Up with grenadine and lime flavoring.

Stasio, an assistant professor of psychology, did pre- and post-test administrations of the Repeatable Battery for the Assessment of Neuropsychological Status (RBANS), which is a general measure of cognitive performance. Through a question-and-answer conversation, the RBANS measures several aspects of cognition, including attention, memory, visual spatial relationships and language. The test was originally developed as a screen for adult dementia, but Stasio said its sensitivity to mild impairment made it a good choice for this type of study.

“The general finding was that people who had energy drinks plus alcohol had a significantly lower RBANS total score than the control group. Specifically, their visual spatial relationships and language performance scores were impaired,” Stasio said. “The spatial impairment suggests that if you have alcohol and mix in an energy drink, activities like driving remain risky. In other words, Mixing Red Bull and vodka won’t make you sober.”

Recently, some beverage manufacturers have created pre-mixed energy drinks containing alcohol. These products appear very similar to other energy drinks, but they contain from 6 percent to 12 percent alcohol. Not all consumers may know what they are getting.

“We have to teach people to really evaluate the products they are buying,” Curry said.

With names like Monster, Amp, Rock Star and No Fear, Curry said, “Regular energy drinks are carefully marketed and targeted for young adults.” She said that it is estimated 34 percent of 18 to 24 year olds report regular consumption compared with only three percent of those 65 and older reporting any consumption at all.

The products, which contain caffeine among other ingredients like guarana and ginseng, first appeared in Europe and Asia in the 1960s. Red Bull first crossed to the U.S. in the late 1960s and early 1970s, transforming into a global brand in the 1980s.

“Energy drinks may seem like just another supplement product, but that may depend on how you use them,” Stasio said, adding that “regular use at night as a concentration or study aid might lead to sleep problems, especially among students who are sensitive to caffeine or who have anxiety problems. And sleep disturbances have been linked to other problems, such as depressed mood. Energy drinks may have lots of active ingredients besides caffeine, and we don’t know enough yet about why and how students use them or the possible risks involved.”