Washburn grad conducts groundbreaking research

Many Americans can identify with the morning routine of waking up and having a cup of coffee before going off to work or school.

Washburn psychology graduate Jordan Huzarevich believes there may be a link between caffeine consumption and psychosis-like symptoms among people who do not have schizophrenia or similar illnesses. To find the answer, he conducted an extensive study in the spring of 2014 as his honor’s thesis.

“When these symptoms—hallucinations, delusions, magical thinking, paranoia and others—are seen among people who don’t actually have schizophrenia, they’re called ‘schizotypy,’” Huzarevich said. “I wanted to know if caffeine was related to these symptoms, and especially if it increased the likelihood of experiencing them.”

When he first began studying psychology, Huzarevich knew that he wanted to conduct research and said that he had been interested in hallucinations for a while. After Julie Boydston, a psychologist and lecturer in the psychology department at Washburn, agreed to supervise his research on hallucinations, he began reading about hallucinations, especially auditory hallucinations.

Huzarevich came across an article published in 2009 about the potential relationship between caffeine and auditory hallucinations. Finding the topic unique, he decided that he wanted to focus his research on this topic. Huzarevich then joined a small group of scholars who had conducted research in this field.

“I specified a topic and then found as much relevant academic literature about that topic as I could. I read those articles and then wrote a literature review: an analysis of what the literature reported, if there were any trends in the results, what measures were typically used, etcetera. This is a great first step because it really familiarizes you with the topic; it gives you an idea of what directions you can take the topic in for your own research as well as how to design that research.”

Once Huzarevich gathered enough information, he designed his study and had it approved by the Institutional Review Board.

The study was divided into two parts: an online questionnaire people filled out, then an in-person portion for a different group of people. To test his hypothesis that caffeine did increase these symptoms, Huzarevich conducted a two-part study over the fall semester of 2014.

In his questionnaire, Huzarevich asked subjects who consumed caffeine regularly questions such as whether or not they had heard voices speaking their thoughts aloud, heard others’ voices, or seen shapes or forms even when nothing was there.

“I posted my questionnaires on SurveyMonkey and made them available to whomever was interested,” Huzarevich said. “The second study was in-person. I set aside blocks of time that I would be in the lab, and anyone who was interested could drop by to participate.”

Huzarevich would have the participants in the second [part of the] study take either a caffeine tablet equivalent to one cup of coffee, or a sugar pill if they were in the control group, but neither he nor the participants knew which one they were given. Twenty minutes after the subjects ingested the pills, Huzarevich had them listen to three minutes of white noise.

“I told them that a song that I had played for them earlier might be embedded in the white noise and that they should indicate whether or not they heard the song in the noise,” Huzarevich explained. “In fact, the song wasn’t embedded in the noise at all; it was just three minutes of white noise. I wanted to know if taking caffeine increased the likelihood of hallucinating the song in the noise.”

Huzarevich took the data he received from the study and wrote a research article about his findings.

“The first [part of the] study looked at whether or not caffeine intake was correlated with schizotypy in general, and, more specifically, with the tendencies to hallucinate and indulge in magical thinking,” Huzarevich said. “I analyzed all this data statistically and found that there was indeed a relationship. As caffeine intake increased, so did those schizophrenia-like symptoms. This was just a correlational study, though, so I couldn’t say that caffeine was causing this increase. It could be that a greater experience of those symptoms caused a higher caffeine intake, or it could be that some unknown factor caused an increase in both.”

Huzarevich said that this didn’t surprise him. During the spring when he was researching his topic, he found relevant information from two studies in particular, one published in 2009 by two British scholars and another published in 2011 from an Australian scholar, which supported the conclusion that there is a link between caffeine and hallucinations. However, Huzarevich was surprised by the results of the second half of the study.

“Unfortunately, the results didn’t match my predictions. Participants who took the caffeine tablets were not more likely than the participants who took the sugar tablets to report hearing the song in the noise,” Huzarevich said.

Boydston, who served as adviser to Huzarevich during the entire process, explained that this may be due to the amount of caffeine present in the tablets.

“That caffeine pill might not have been enough. Other studies, when they’ve talked about doing it, they’ve talked about giving more than a cup of coffee,” Boydston said.

Huzaverich and Boydston are not aware of this exact study having been conducted before.

“That we know of, there’s no published study doing this,” Boydston said about the second part of the study. “There are a lot of researchers and a lot of research labs. We can only know what’s been published,” Huzarevich said.

Huzarevich explained that making predictions and designing the study was difficult because he didn’t have very many examples to fall back on. However, the few studies he did have were well researched and he also had the valuable support of Boydston, Mike Russell, associate professor of psychology, and Jericho Hockett, lecturer of psychology. Huzarevich hopes to publish his findings from the study in an academic journal.

“We’re hoping to publish it in the journals where he found the research in the first place,” Boydston said.

Although Huzarevich didn’t find the results he was expecting, he would like to come back to the study one day.

“I’d like to pursue it further and hope to have the opportunity,” Huzarevich said. “As soon as the second study ended, I was flooded with thoughts of how the study could’ve been designed better. With any luck, I’ll be able to do just that, because, in spite of the results of the second study, I’m not totally convinced that caffeine doesn’t increase the likelihood of having psychosis-like experiences.”