Tag Archives: anxiety

Going Green–Literally.

Paris is unique in its ability to blend modernity and antiquity. In the heart of Paris, buildings are decades if not centuries old, with intricate designs and rows of windows, all neatly laced in criss-crossing streets and alleyways. It’s a dizzying sight, but one that sparks all of my imaginations and Google searches of the city view. In the peripheral regions of the city are giant skyscrapers, metal behemoths proving that Paris is not just an old city, but still vibrant and thriving well in the 21st century.

Square trees--welcome to Paris?

Amidst all of this man-made wonder, still I feel that something is amiss—greenery. Sure there are parks, and trees carefully planted in rows along the streets, but I can’t help but miss that part of home. I grew up in the suburbs of metro-Atlanta, where trees grew haphazardly and buildings were constructed around them. Nature is one of the reasons for which I am excited to return home–to get my hands messy with dirt and tree sap instead of congesting my lungs with cigarette smoke and exhaust fumes. I guess that’s to be expected in the city, but that is the reason why I would not feel ‘at home’ here. When I do find some odd time, I like to venture into the park across Cite U. It’s huge, with rolling hills, monstrous trees, and a laidback atmosphere with people hoping to escape the hustle and bustle of Paris—if only for a moment.

A map of Parc Montsouris

The freshness of nature is what draws me to the great outdoors. It’s rejuvenating, like taking a nice hot shower on a cold day. I feel connected to Mother Earth, and free of the dusty rooms and buildings that seem to trap more than shelter. Though I have come to appreciate the emotional (and even spiritual) boost I receive when taking nature walks, I began to wonder if there are more tangible benefits to walking in the woods. As luck would have it, research has shown the possibility of improving cognition by surrounding oneself in nature.

Parc Montsouris

A study by Berman et al. focused on understanding how nature can affect individuals with major depressive disorder (MDD) (2012). This disorder affects working memory and is characterized by a constant negative mood.  Nature may help these people improve cognitively, or conversely cause them to ruminate and thus worsen their mood. The researchers used 20 participants diagnosed with MDD. Before starting the nature walks, the participants’ short term memory span and mood were measured using the BDS task and PANAS, respectively. BDS (backward digit span) task involves patients repeating a number auditorily presented each second. PANAS (positive and negative affect schedule) is a questionnaire in which participants rate in terms of intensity a list of emotions (both positive and negative) that they may be feeling. Lastly, the participants were asked to ruminate on a negative event in their life, to see if nature walks would alleviate or aggravate the ruminations.

A park near the Bastille, on an archway above the busy streets below

Participants walked on a designated path for about 50 minutes (2.8 miles) in either a secluded park or traffic-heavy downtown area. Upon returning, they again completed the BDS task and PANAS. The researchers also asked the patients what they thought about during their walks, to roughly see if ruminations persisted on the walk. The experiment was repeated a week later, with the participants walking along the path they had not walked in the first session. Results show that the participants had relatively similar BDS score before the tests, but those in the nature walk had higher scores (i.e. a larger memory capacity) than those in the city walk. In terms of mood, the participants scored higher on more positive emotions and lower on negative emotions after the nature walk than after the urban walk. Lastly, participants in either walk ruminated on the negative event to the relatively same degree.

Garden in the Chateau de Villandry

Garden in the Chateau de Villandry

These results of the study are interesting because they suggest that perhaps one can improve memory and mood simply through walking through nature. Even though the ruminations didn’t differ during either walk, still the participants demonstrated better short term memory and mood, indicating that just avoiding those negative thoughts is not why they scored higher on the tests. Maybe environment does play a stronger role in our cognition than previously thought.

Still, I was curious to learn more about the root of cognitive improvement through these nature walks. After some research, I found data that blew my mind. A study investigated the role of a bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae in mice behavior and learning (Matthews and Jenks, 2013). These bacteria are found in soil, water, and plants, i.e. the basic ingredients of a nature walk. Previous research has studied the symbiotic (both parties benefiting) relationship between microbes and animal hosts, and the possible brain-gut connection through these animals improve cognitive abilities after ingesting the bacteria.

Lopsided tree, perfect for climbing

Skipping the gory details, mice were tested for anxiety-related behaviors and speed of completion of maze navigation. Those fed the bacteria had reduced anxiety-related behaviors and completed the maze twice as quickly as mice not given the bacteria. The level of activity did not differ between the experimental and control mice, since both groups used the running wheel a similar amount of time. The results are astonishing because they show that by simply ingesting certain bacteria, mice can improve learning and reduce their anxiety.

If we can somehow test this in humans, and ascertain to what degree the Mycobacterium vaccae bacteria exist in our environment and our bodies, maybe we can come to similar conclusions. These data could potentially show that walking in nature does not only give a psychological boost—we may be actually replenishing our stock of that bacteria, becoming cognitively stronger without even realizing it. Though we may be far from truly understanding this effect in humans, I will take these results as a cue to continue my nature walks. If not for the healthy boost of bacteria, at least I can leave the crowded, polluted city for fresh air, green trees, and a glimpse of untouched beauty.

-Mayur Patel

Relaxing on a giant branch

Relaxing on a giant branch


Berman M, Kross E, Krpan K, Askren M, Burson A, Deldin P, Kaplan S, Sherdell L, Gotlib I, Jonides J (2012) Interacting with nature improves cognition and affect for individuals with depression. Journal of Affective Disorders 140: 300-305

Matthews D, Jenks S (2013) Ingestion of Mycobacterium vaccae decreases anxiety-related behavior and improves learning in mice. Behavioral Processes 96: 27-35

Confessions of a Coffee Addict

With the addition of new coffee vendors on Emory’s campus over the past three years, combined with the excellent surrounding breakfast hotspots, I have become one to regularly appreciate and truly enjoy a hot cup of coffee. Whether the coffee be from Starbucks, Rise-n-Dine or Dunkin Donuts, I am victim to daily expenditure at these vendors for my morning (and sometimes evening) caffeine fix. Now that my time in Paris is approaching its end, I will readily admit that I had routed the closest Starbucks locations to my dorm and to the building where we take classes (before my departure from New York). I saved those directions in my phone; anticipating daily visits to this familiar coffee shop.

My pre-departure routing of Starbucks to the Accent center (where we take classes)

When I realized that it would be a daily struggle to somehow go to Starbucks before my early morning class (thanks to the reliability of the French subway system), I decided to give the conveniently located French coffee (on campus) a chance. My first experience with French café was at the Cite Universitaire cafeteria, as I was presented with a Dixie-cup size equivalent cup of black coffee. No sugar, no milk…but I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t realize how strong the coffee would be and I can safely say that 3 cups of the café coffee was overkill…

All throughout Paris, I have noticed that the café comes in one size: about a quarter of the size of the regular coffee we get back in America. The coffee is quite deceiving, as the small cup actually keeps me energized despite its miniscule volume. I quickly realized that coffee in itself is a part of French culture, as many cafes throughout the city orient their tables and chairs to face the streets—this way, people can enjoy a cup of coffee and “people watch”. I rarely see Parisians eating lavish breakfasts (doesn’t stop me though…); rather, they enjoy a simple black coffee with the morning paper. French culture, to me, seems to emphasize simplicity and reservation. A cup of coffee, then, serves as a means to collect your thoughts and appreciate the beauty of France while simultaneously obtaining a needed jolt of energy. A cup of coffee transcends the traditional role of a breakfast drink, as “une tasse de café” is readily available (and encouraged) at any time of day.

French breakfast at a local restaurant (notice the tiny coffee...)

One of the classes we are taking here is related to body enhancement and the new, innovative technologies that can alter normal human function. During class one day, Dr. Crutcher shared with us some research that suggested the caffeine fix from our morning cups of coffee actually yields some physiological effects besides just enhanced alertness. In the past, researchers found that caffeine can increase anxiety in the short run, but increased doses of caffeine over time (via more coffee, for example) can lead to a diminished effect because of the build up of tolerance (Rogers et al., 2010). Recent research suggests that caffeine, readily found in coffee, may modify the way the different brain areas react to social threats (Smith et al., 2012). What are the neurological implications of this? Smith et al. (2012) set out to determine if there really was a relationship between anxiety, threatening signals, caffeine and the brain.

How did they do this study? After obtaining a group of subjects, the researchers gave the participants in this study received a fixed amount of either caffeine or placebo in two different sessions. During each session, the participants were placed in an MRI machine that would give researchers an fMRI scan (functional magnetic resonance image). An fMRI is basically a way to measure the changes in blood flow in the brain. Changes in blood flow in the brain represent changes in activity and activation in the different areas of the brain. (For example, if an area of the brain is in use, then there is increased blood flow in that area.) While in the MRI machine, participants were asked to perform an “emotional face processing task” (EFPT). This task involved participants being presented with different faces, each representing different emotions, and they had to match the presented face to a target face at the top of the screen. (Similar to a matching game!) After seeing the faces and doing the matching task, the participants would rate their anxiety and mental alertness (compared to before the task) via a questionnaire. Researchers also measured their blood pressure (before and 2 hours after the treatment of either the placebo or caffeine) (Smith et al., 2012).

Turns out that when the participants who were administered caffeine saw the threatening faces, that is the angry and fearful faces during the EFPT, there was increased activation of a brain area called the “midbrain periaqueductal gray area” and decreased activation in another area called the “medial prefrontal cortex” compared to the placebo group (Smith et al., 2012). Participants who received the caffeine dosage had higher self-rated anxiety on the questionnaires and their diastolic blood pressures were higher also! However, the exact neural mechanisms and implications of how these areas actually process threatening images and scenarios are still unknown (Smith et al., 2012). So what was the point of this study then? Smith et al. (2012) suggest that these brain areas, that showed changes in activity, are actually related to social threat processing and anxiety in humans. Because there were actual changes in blood flow in these areas in response to threatening or anxiety-inducing faces, only in the light of a caffeine dosage, it seems to be that caffeine is modifying the patterns of activation in the brain. A daily dose of caffeine, in the form of coffee for most of us, then, can possibly affect the way we perceive threats and can possibly affect how anxious we are compared to when we do not consume caffeine.


As with almost everything that seems too good to be true, in this case a delicious cup of French coffee, this study seems to suggest that loading up on multiple cups of coffee a day might not be the best idea. But, I don’t really plan on giving up my black Americano any time soon (especially since I’m leaving France soon and am already having French coffee withdrawal).

-Noareen Ahmed


Rogers, P, Hohoff C, Heatherley S  (2010) Association of the anxiogenic and alerting effects of caffeine with ADORA2A and ADORA1 polymorphisms and habitual level of caffeine consumption. Neuropsychopharmacology 35: 1973–83.

Smith J, Lawrence D, Diukova A, Wise R, Rogers P (2012) Storm in a coffee cup: caffeine modifies brain activation to social signals of threat. Scan 7: 831-840