The researchers recruited healthy older participants to two groups according to their history of tea drinking frequency and investigated both functional and structural networks to reveal the role of tea drinking on brain organization.
The suppression of hemispheric asymmetry in the structural connectivity network was observed as a result of tea drinking.
The authors did not observe any significant effects of tea drinking on the hemispheric asymmetry of the functional connectivity network.
Dr. Junhua Li and Dr. Lei Feng said, “Tea has been a popular beverage since antiquity, with records referring to consumption dating back to the dynasty of Shen Nong (approximately 2700 BC) in China.”
Tea is consumed in diverse ways, with brewed tea and products with a tea ingredient extremely prevalent in Asia, especially in China and Japan.
Although individual constituents of tea have been related to the roles of maintaining cognitive abilities and preventing cognitive decline, a study with behavioural and neurophysiological measures showed that there was a degraded effect or no effect when a constituent was administered alone and a significant effect was observed only when constituents were combined.
The superior effect of the constituent combination was also demonstrated in a comparative experiment that suggested that tea itself should be administered instead of tea extracts; a review of tea effects on the prevention of Alzheimers disease, found that the neuroprotective role of herbal tea was apparent in eight out of nine studies.
It is worth noting that the majority of studies thus far have evaluated tea effects from the perspective of neurocognitive and neuropsychological measures, with direct measurement of brain structure or function less-well represented in the extant literature.
Comparisons of neuropsychological and cognitive measures between the tea drinking group (T) and non-tea drinking group (NT).
A non-parametric permutation test was used to evaluate the significance level in group differences by permuting 10,000 times (* corrected p-0.05).
Abbreviations: RAVLT_ir, Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test with immediate recall; RAVLT_dr, Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test with delayed recall; DigitSpan_fwd, forward Digit Span; DigitSpan_bwd, backward Digit Span; SDMT_written, Symbol Digit Modalities Test by written response; SDMT_oral, Symbol Digit Modalities Test by oral response; BostonNaming, Boston Naming Test; BlockDesign, Block Design tests from the Wechsler Adults Intelligence Scale (WAIS-III); CTT1, Color Trials Test 1; CTT2, Color Trials Test 2; MMSE, Mini-Mental State Examination, MoCA, Montreal Cognitive Assessment. The image is credited to Junhua Li and Lei Feng.
These studies focusing on brain regional alterations did not ascertain tea effects on interregional interactions at the level of the entire brain.
The Li/Feng Research team concluded, “In summary, our study comprehensively investigated the effects of tea drinking on brain connectivity at both global and regional scales using multi-modal imaging data and provided the first compelling evidence that tea drinking positively contributes to brain structure making network organization more efficient.”
Tea has been a popular beverage since antiquity, with records referring to consumption dating back to the dynasty of Shen Nong (approximately 2700 BC) in China . Tea is consumed in diverse ways, with brewed tea and products with a tea ingredient extremely prevalent in Asia, especially in China and Japan.
It also is more fashionable than ever in western countries. A growing literature has demonstrated that tea intake is beneficial to human health, including mood improvement (e.g., anti-stress) [2–4], risk reduction of cognitive decline [5–8], cardiovascular disease prevention , lower cancer incidence [10, 11], reduced mortality [12, 13].
These benefits of tea are derived primarily from the effects of its constituents: catechin, L-theanine, and caffeine. In both animal and human studies [14–16], catechin has been found to be beneficial to cognitive health, showing enhancements in memory recognition and working memory performance compared to the intake of placebo .
Kimura et al. discovered that L-theanine plays a positive role in anti-stress by reducing stress-induced heart rate and salivary immunoglobulin A (s-lgA) during a stressed mental arithmetic task . The beneficial effect of caffeine on cognitive functioning was reported at least two decades ago  and replicated by recent studies [18, 19].
Although individual constituents of tea have been related to the roles of maintaining cognitive abilities and preventing cognitive decline, a study with behavioural and neurophysiological measures showed that there was a degraded effect or no effect when a constituent was administered alone and a significant effect was observed only when constituents were combined .
The superior effect of the constituent combination was also demonstrated in a comparative experiment  that suggested that tea itself should be administered instead of tea extracts; a review of tea effects on the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) , found that the neuroprotective role of herbal tea was apparent in eight out of nine studies.
It is worth noting that the majority of studies thus far have evaluated tea effects from the perspective of neurocognitive and neuropsychological measures, with direct measurement of brain structure or function less-well represented in the extant literature (see a recent summary in ).
In a double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study with near-infrared spectroscopy measure, cerebral blood flow in the frontal cortex was reduced by oral tea administration . This change of regional brain activity was also observed by EEG in a study, showing that higher theta, alpha, and beta oscillations were associated with tea consumption in the frontal and medial frontal gyri . These studies focusing on brain regional alterations did not ascertain tea effects on interregional interactions at the level of the entire brain.
Graph theoretical analysis is a suitable and effective tool to gain insights into brain interregional interactions and has been widely utilized in diverse investigations involving both patients and healthy people [26–28].
To date, only two published papers have investigated the association between functional connectivity and tea compounds in only a few task-related regions selected a priori [29, 30], leaving the large-scale networks of the brain unexplored.
In this study, we comprehensively explored brain connectivity with both global and regional metrics derived from structural and functional imaging to unveil putative differential connectivity organizations between tea drinking group and non-tea drinking group. In addition, we focused on interregional connectivity within the default mode network (DMN) because previous studies have suggested that it is predominantly involved in cognitive disease  and normal ageing .
Moreover, according to our prior investigation of hemispheric asymmetry, leftward asymmetry in structural connectivity is associated with brain ageing . Therefore, hemispheric asymmetries in connectivity were also included to test the effects of tea drinking. We hypothesized that:
(1) habitual tea drinking has positive effects on brain organization and gives rise to greater efficiency in functional and structural connectivities;
(2) tea intake leads to less leftward asymmetry in structural connectivity;
(3) tea drinking is associated with connective strength alterations of functional and structural connectivities in the DMN.
In this study, we comprehensively investigated both functional and structural networks from the perspectives of global and regional properties for the effect of habitual tea drinking on the human brain.
The observations in this study partially support the hypothesis that tea drinking has positive effects on brain organization and gives rise to greater efficiency in functional and structural connectivities due to increased global network efficiency found in the brain structure of tea drinkers, but no significant enhancement in functional connectivity. As hypothesised, tea drinking leads to less leftward asymmetry in structural connectivity between hemispheres. In addition, we found that functional connectivity within the DMN was higher for the tea drinking group.
A coexistence of increasing and decreasing connectivity strengths in the structural DMN was unveiled. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis that there is an association between tea drinking and connective strength alterations.
A large number of studies have suggested that the reduction of interregional connectivity is associated with brain ageing by means of diverse data analytics such as seed-based connectivity, predefined regions interconnections, and tractographic connectivity [34–39], which implies that a slower ageing brain should retain more connections between regions and milder disruption in connectivity resulting in higher efficiency for communications and information exchange between regions.
Here, higher structural network efficiency was found in older adults who had habitual tea drinking. Relative to the non-tea drinking group, the tea drinking group had less topological distance between brain regions and more efficient interregional connectivity.
This supports the hypothesis that the positive effects of habitual tea drinking are exerted on brain organization by preventing interregional connections from becoming disrupted.
In addition to the significant effect of tea drinking on whole brain organization, a regional effect was also observed in this study, showing that tea intake resulted in higher nodal efficiency. The majority of these regions reside in the frontal cortex, which is in agreement with the previous finding that the frontal region is involved in age-related alterations of structural connectivity .
In contrast to structural connectivity, functional connectivity did not exhibit any significant difference in both global graph theoretical metrics and regional metrics. Habitual tea drinking did not give rise to observable changes in brain functional connectivity relative to non-tea drinking. If differences in functional connectivity do exist, then they may be masked by the well-known compensatory mechanism .
The loss of structural connectivity might be compensated for by greater functional activity so as to preserve equivalent function corresponding to intact structural connectivity . Another possible explanation is that abnormalities in functional connectivity are too subtle to manifest in measures of connectivity efficiency.
These two possible explanations are compatible; that is, a subtle change was residual after the compensation counteracting detrimental alterations. However, the effect of compensation is finite  and cannot always completely offset the decrement in cognitive performance.
This was supported by the results of the neuropsychological measures. Greater visuospatial functioning was observed in older adults with tea drinking compared to older adults without tea drinking based on the test of Block Design, while no significant difference was found in the other measures. Our observation suggests that tea consumption might provide a beneficial effect that cannot be derived from compensation to facilitate the implementation of cognitive tasks.
In the comparison of hemispheric asymmetry between the tea drinking group and non-tea drinking group, the suppression of hemispheric asymmetry in structural connectivity was associated with tea drinking, tending to be more symmetric in structural connectivity. Specifically, the non-tea drinking group exhibited significantly leftward asymmetry in the clustering coefficient and local efficiency, and thus the segregation of connectivity networks was distinct between brain hemispheres.
This hemispheric asymmetry in structural connectivity has been associated with brain ageing . Moreover, leftward asymmetry in structural connectivity was found in healthy older adults . Collectively, previous studies have suggested a U-shaped developmental trajectory in hemispheric asymmetry from leftward asymmetry to rightward asymmetry to leftward asymmetry again across the lifespan from childhood to middle age to old age [33, 42–45]. Taken together, the suppression of leftward asymmetry in structural connectivity suggests that tea intake could slow age-related alterations towards leftward asymmetry and retain a pattern more similar to that of the middle age (i.e., rightward asymmetry). In addition, we found six significantly differential regions between the groups, which showed greater efficiency in the tea-drinking group.
These regions included MFG, SFGdor, and ACG, which were also found to have an age-related association in a previous study . This suggests that tea plays a beneficial role in the preservation of efficiency between brain regions. The differentiation of hemispheric asymmetry between the tea-drinking group and the non-tea drinking group might underpin significant manifestations between the groups in visuospatial functioning and information processing, as the right hemisphere is more specialized for visuospatial processing . Similar to the results of the whole-cerebrum functional connectivity, global metrics in the hemispheric asymmetry were not significantly affected by tea drinking.
This observation was in accordance with a previous finding of less overall alterations in functional connectivity relative to structural connectivity . These results together allow speculation that structural global metrics are more sensitive to subtle alterations in the brain compared to functional global metrics in terms of overall connectivity at the network scale. This might not be the case for individual connections.
The Default mode network (DMN) functional connectivity has been extensively investigated as it related to the neurodegenerative brain [31, 32, 47–49]. A general finding is that suppressed activity and decreased functional connectivity in the DMN during rest is associated with cognitive decline [48–50].
Decreased functional connectivity linked to cognitive decline can be hindered or mitigated by tea intake according to the observation of stronger functional connectivity in the tea-drinking group. As is known, regions in the DMN are consistently found to be active and interconnected during the resting state  and engage in the preparation of a task implementation .
Stronger functional connectivity between regions of the DMN is related to better preparedness for task implementation.
Therefore, the stronger functional connectivity in the DMN observed in the tea-drinking group may reflect the contribution of tea consumption to efficient network organization. Unlike functional connectivity, effects in structural connectivity in the DMN were of differing directions, with increasing connective strengths in some connections, but decreasing strengths for the others.
We speculate that the coexistence of increased and decreased structural connectivity might be attributed to new, alternative paths established to replace disruption to existing routes.
Prior to our study, only two studies attempted to discover the relationship between tea intake and functional connectivity [29, 30]. Schmidt and colleagues found a significant increase in the functional connectivity strength between the right superior parietal lobule (SPL) and the right middle frontal gyrus (MFG) due to tea consumption .
The increase of functional connectivity strength was also observed in a comparative study . Our study corroborated the previous notion that tea intake enhanced the strengths of specific functional connections and provided further insight that tea intake did not lead to a significant change in overall functional connectivity. I
n contrast to these two studies that focused on a few task-related brain regions for functional connectivity, our study investigated both global and regional functional connectivity and further elucidated the relationship between structural connectivity and tea drinking.
Although our study was comprehensive and the findings were intriguing, the following limitations and considerations should be noted. The number of participants in our study was almost twice the numbers employed previously [29, 30].
However, the sample size was still limited. This was partially due to strict inclusion criteria which ensured that the participants in the tea drinking group had a habit of frequently drinking tea, while the participants in the non-tea drinking rarely or never drunk any kinds of tea to enhance the confidence of the findings.
In our case, we initially recruited 93 participants, but only 15 and 21 participants remained in the tea-drinking group and non-tea drinking group, respectively.
Other substances might interfere with the outcome of the effect of tea drinking on brain connectivity. Coffee is one of the beverages that affect outcomes as it contains caffeine that is also one of the main active constituents of tea.
However, coffee consumption between the tea-drinking group and the non-tea drinking group was not significantly different between the groups. Although there were no significant differences in demographic factors, environmental factors could have a confounding effect on brain network properties.
For the nature of exploratory purpose, p-values were not corrected in the comparisons of regional properties between the tea drinking and non-tea drinking groups. Therefore, some of detected regions or connections may have occurred by chance. The results of regional properties provide heuristic information for further studies.
In summary, our study comprehensively investigated the effects of tea drinking on brain connectivity at both global and regional scales using multi-modal imaging data (i.e., functional and structural imaging) and provided the first compelling evidence that tea drinking positively contributes to brain structure making network organization more efficient. Our study suggests that tea drinking is effective in preventing (slowing) or ameliorating cognitive decline and that tea drinking might be a simple lifestyle choice that benefits brain health.
Junhua Li – Impact JournalsImage Source:
The image is credited to Junhua Li and Lei Feng.
Original Research: Open access
“Habitual tea drinking modulates brain efficiency: evidence from brain connectivity evaluation”. Junhua Li, Rafael Romero-Garcia, John Suckling, Lei Feng.