Have you ever wondered why, and exactly where in the brain, coffee (or any caffeinated product, for that matter) is able to exert its arousing effects? Well, wonder no longer, because an international team of researchers from Japan, China and the US, have located the primary neurons upon which caffeine works its magic (Lazarus 2011).
It was previously known that caffeine wakes you up through inhibiting activity at adenosine A2a receptors (adenosine is an inhibitory neuromodulator involved in regulating the sleep-wake cycle). However, it was not known exactly where in the brain the receptors that exerted this effect are located.
How did they do it?
The researchers utilized a method whereby the gene that codes for A2a receptors (A2aRs) is marked such that they can be deleted, but only in a specific regions of the brain. Using a rat model, the team utilized these gene deletion strategies and found that when they knocked out A2aRs in the shell of the nucleus accumbens, rats no longer experienced the arousing effects of caffeine.
How does this work?
Adenosine activates A2a receptors in the nucleus accumbens shell, activation of which receptors inhibit the arousal system. That is, the more adenosine activation there is, the sleepier an organism becomes. Caffeine, which binds to these same receptors and blocks adenosine from exerting its activity there, essentially disinhibits the arousal system, promoting wakefulness. (Amazingly, based on similarities between the brains of mice and men, the area of the human brain in which caffeine acts to counteract fatigue is approximately the size of a pea.)
What does this mean in practical terms? (or, in other words, why should we find this so cool?)
Well, for one, it gives us a more specific mechanistic explanation for the arousing effects of caffeine. It says that in order for caffeine to work, it not only has to be effective as an A2aR antagonist, but that excitatory A2aRs on nucleus accumbens shell neurons must be tonically activated by endogenous adenosine. This is especially important in consideration of individual differences in the subjective effects of caffeine.
What if A2aRs are more densely packed in the shell of your nucleus accumbens than in mine? Might you be more sensitive to the effects of caffeine than me? That certainly seems likely. And the reason that one person might over or underexpress these receptors vs. another seems to be related to variation in the gene that produces those receptors (the gene knocked out in the rat study described above). In fact, we've already have evidence that this is the case. Past studies have shown genetic variations in genes coding for A2aRs were associated with greater sensitivity to caffeine and sleep impairment (Retey 2007), and greater anxiety after caffeine (Childs 2008). This study refines the existing model and should inspire, and lead to more accurate interpretation of, future genetics studies.*
*Other significant genes that underlie individual differences in the subjective effects of caffeine include CYP1A2, or cytochrome enzyme P-450 1A2, which is associated with caffeine metabolism, and those coding for dopamine D2 receptors.
Lazarus M, Shen HY, Cherasse Y, Qu WM, Huang ZL, Bass CE, Winsky-Sommerer R, Semba K, Fredholm BB, Boison D, Hayaishi O, Urade Y, & Chen JF (2011). Arousal Effect of Caffeine Depends on Adenosine A2A Receptors in the Shell of the Nucleus Accumbens. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31 (27), 10067-10075 PMID: 21734299
Childs E, Hohoff C, Deckert J, Xu K, Badner J, de Wit H (2008)
Association between ADORA2A and DRD2 polymorphisms and
caffeine-induced anxiety. Neuropsychopharmacology. 33:2791–
Retey JV, Adam M, Khatami R, Luhmann UF, Jung HH, Berger W,
Landolt HP (2007) A genetic variation in the adenosine A2A
receptor gene (ADORA2A) contributes to individual sensitivity
to caffeine effects on sleep. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 81:692–698