Author Archives: Ethan Siegel

Café au Lait to get Through the Day

My amazing “café au lait” from Coutume Café in the 7ème arrondissement


Who doesn’t love a nice, hot cup of coffee after a morning shower? Not only does it taste AMAZING, but it also wakes you up and gets you ready for the day to come. Every morning, for the last 4 or so years, I drink a cup of coffee while getting dressed or eating breakfast. So, upon coming to Paris, I undoubtedly continued my ritual.

The walk from Cité Universitaire (where I live) to Coutume Café (my favorite coffee shop).




I essentially used my love of coffee as an excuse to visit as many cafés and small restaurants as possible. However, I soon discovered the enormous difference between French coffee and the American coffee that I am used to. The French are huge advocates for espresso, that is, a coffee-like drink served in tiny porcelain cups. However, unlike American coffee, espresso is extremely potent and filled with a TON of caffeine. Over the past few weeks, I too have become a lover of espresso and the large amount of caffeine and “energy” that comes with it. However, I was not quite sure exactly how caffeine affects the brain resulting in what we perceive as a boost in energy and decrease in drowsiness. So, throughout my days in Paris, I looked for an answer.

Typical French coffee (left) vs. typical American coffee (right)

While searching for an answer, I stumbled upon an article by Lazarus et al. (2011) concerning the effects of caffeine on wakefulness. Previous research found that caffeine counteracts fatigue by binding to adenosine A2A receptors. Adenosine, an inhibitory neuromodulator, has been linked to regulation of the homeostatic sleep drive. So, by binding to the receptor in the brain that normally binds to adenosine, caffeine indirectly prevents adenosine from functioning properly, altering one’s sleep pattern (Huang et al., 2011). Lazarus et al. used this information to construct their experimentations.

In their study, Lazarus et al. bred a strain of rats that had a knockout of the A2A receptor in their nucleus accumbens, that is, these rats did not have this receptor within this specific brain region. They then performed EEG (electrical monitoring) tests on these rats and compared their electrical brain activity with that of control rats (rats that did not have the A2A knockout). The researchers administered equivalent concentrations of caffeine to both groups of rats and monitored their brain’s electrical activity during sleep cycles. What they found was extremely interesting. The caffeine caused increased wakefulness in the control rats (those that did not have the A2A receptor knockout), while caffeine had no effect on wakefulness in the experimental rats (those with the A2A receptor knockout). This means caffeine not only blocks adenosine from binding to the A2A receptor (Huang et al., 2011), but it also prevents the activation of the “adenosine break,” resulting in increased wakefulness.

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A figure from Lazarus et al. (2011) depicting the adenosine A2A receptors in the nucleus accumbens of rat models. The left shows a control (wild-type) rat nucleus accumbens, while the right shows an experimental (knockout) rat nucleus accumbens.

Furthermore, the data from this study suggests that caffeine induces arousal and wakefulness by activating pathways in the nucleus accumbens that have formerly been associated with locomotion and motivational behaviors. This is a novel finding because it implicates caffeine in more than just the blocking of adenosine, but also in the activation of further neuronal circuitry, promoting a sense of “energy”.

A figure from Lazarus et al. showing the effect of caffeine on wakefulness. There is no significant increase in wakefulness in the A2A receptor knockout mice as more caffeine is administered. However, there is a significant increase in the wakefulness of wild-type mice as more caffeine is administered.

What I find super interesting about this study is how the researchers localized the antagonist effects of caffeine to the nucleus accumbems. In previous neuroscience classes, I learned of the association between the nucleus accumbens and cognitive processes such as motivation, pleasure and reward, thus implicating this brain region in numerous forms of addiction. With this in mind, I wish the experimenters had monitored the changes in behavior between the experimental and control rats when receiving differing levels of caffeine. This could be accomplished by using an intravenous self-administration task (IVSA). IVSA entails using chambers with small levers that, when pushed, cause specific drugs to be administered into the tail of that rat that pushed the lever (Figure 1). The researchers could perform IVSA for both control and experimental rats, and use either a saline or a caffeine solution as the respective drug. If this was done properly, I predict the control rats to show increased pushing of the lever when receiving caffeine compared to saline, corresponding to an greater feeling of pleasure and reward associated with the caffeine. Alternatively, I predict the experimental rats to show no significant difference in pushing of the lever between administrations of caffeine and saline because the caffeine does not affect their nucleus accumbens in the same way that it does for the control rats.

A very simplified version of the IVSA task in rat models.


Regardless, I find the study by Lazarus et al. to be extremely fascinating because, as a regular coffee drinker, it gives me insight to what is occurring in my brain!

Anyway, I’m about to go grab a coffee and walk around the city. Until next time!

~ Ethan Siegel



Huang ZL, Urade Y, Hayaishi O (2011) The role of adenosine in the regulation of sleep. Curr Top Med Chem 11:1047–1057.

Lazarus M, Shen H-Y, Cherasse Y, Qu W-M, Huang Z-L, Bass C, Winsky-Sommerer R, Semba K, Fredholm B, Boison D, Hayaishi O, Urade Y, Chen J-F (2011) Arousal effect of caffeine depends on adenosine A2A receptors in the shell of the nucleus accumbens. The Journal of Neuroscience 31(27): 10067-10075

“Hello” or “Bonjour” ?

Hello world,

This past week has been extremely interesting, yet exciting, to say the least. After a TERRIBLE delay at JFK airport, I finally made it to Paris (about 6 hours behind schedule…). Once settled into my room, I met up with my friend, Sasha, to grab a quick dinner. We decided to go to a small restaurant close to where we live, as our long day of traveling left us extremely tired. When we sat down at the restaurant, the waiter walked over and said, “Bonjour, comment puis-je vous aider?” This caught me extremely off guard, as this was the first time I engaged in a conversation with a true francophone.


Sasha (left) and me (right) at dinner


Sasha and me at the Eiffel Tower


Let me rewind a little bit. I have studied French since 6th grade, and although it may not be my primary concentration in college, it plays a huge role in my academic career. However, this was my first time in a French speaking country, so I have not had much experience with French conversation, aside from with my fellow French-speaking peers and professors. So, when the waiter confronted me and asked a question in French, I was rightfully so caught off guard.



(Anyway, returning to the restaurant…) Sasha, being from Montreal and growing up speaking French with her family, swiftly answered the waiter. After a few seconds of gathering myself and adjusting my vocabulary, I too answered him (in French, of course). This event made wonder what physiological differences, if any, occurred in my brain when switching between English and French vocabulary. Were different areas of my brain active for French words versus English words and vice versa? This question sparked my interest, so, upon returning to my room I searched for an answer.

Before I try and explain the studies I found, let me give you a quick and easy lesson concerning neuroscience and language. Broca’s area, a region of the frontal part of the brain, is linked to the production of speech, while Wernicke’s area, a region of the temporal part of the brain (slightly above where your ears are), is linked to the comprehension aspects of speech. In order to engage in a coherent conversation with another individual, one must use both of these areas, as the language one hears must be understood
(via Wetumblr_memuxuR4xw1qf721rrnicke’s area) and the language one speaks must be intelligible (via Broca’s area). So, when looking for an answer to my original question about language, I immediately thought that this must be the sole system affected, but boy was I wrong.


After some quick searching, I stumbled upon an article by Correia et al., 2014, concerning brain activation in bilingual individuals. The researchers in this study subjected bilingual participants, fluent in English and Dutch, to a series of experimentations in which the participants were placed inside an fMRI and told to listen to a series of words. The words consisted of the names of specific animal species, and the language spoken varied between English and Dutch. The fMRI constructed images of the participant’s brains, highlighting the regions most active during this process. By examining and comparing the fMRI images created by solely Dutch words, solely English words, and a combination of the two, Correia et al. isolated several regions of the brain active for both languages. The main region of activity they observed was the anterior temporal lobe (ATL). This cortical region is associated with semantic memory, that is, memory of physical objects, people, information, and (most important to this study) words (Bonner and Price, 2013). This finding is significant as it provides evidence that semantic knowledge is processed in a language-independent form in the brains of bilingual listeners (Correia et al., 2014). Essentially, this means that as the participants listened the either English or Dutch words, their ATLs become equivalently active for each. So, when I was in the restaurant with Sasha, although I may have been caught off guard by the waiter speaking French, similar regions of my brain became active compared to if the waiter spoke English to me.

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A figure from Correia et al. (2014) depicting the language-independent regions of the brain, one of which being the anterior temporal lobe (ATL)

Another interesting study I found was conducted by Mohades et al. in 2012. In this study, the researchers assessed the brain circuitry associated with language in children aged 8-11 years old. They compared this circuitry in children raised monolingual to those raised bilingual. Through this, the researchers discovered significantly different white matter density in specific brain regions involved with spoken language and comprehension of language. Certain areas of bilingual’s brains contained different densities of white matter in comparison to the brain’s of monolinguals (Mohades et al., 2012). This means that the circuitry of the brain involved with language differs depending on one’s language capabilities. So, in relation to my brain and Sasha’s brain, we have different densities of white matter in specific regions of our brains, since Sasha was raised bilingual (woah).


The type of fMRI imaging used by Mohades et al. (2011) to measure white matter integrity (density).


I found both of these articles very interesting because they offer different findings regarding brain activation in bilinguals. In my NBB classes I learn about many regions of the brain discussed in these studies, yet I never knew the role they played in bilingual individuals. With this newfound knowledge, I am interested in doing further research to discover more differences in brain activation associated with language.

~ Ethan Siegel


Bonner M, Price A (2013) Where is the anterior temporal lobe and what does it do? The Journal of Neuroscience. 33(10): 4213-4215

Correia J, Formisano E, Valente G, Hausfeld L, Jansma B, Bonte M (2014) Brain-based translation: fMRI decoding of spoken words in bilinguals reveals language-independent semantic representations in anterior temporal lobe. The Journal of Neuroscience. 34(1):332–338

Mohades S, Struys E, Van Schuerbeek P, Mondt K, Van de Craen P, Luypaert R (2011) DTI reveals structural differences in white matter tracts between bilingual and monolingual children. SciVerse ScienceDirect. 1435: 72-80