Scientists ID Human Brain's Sleep Switch

Posted: Oct 9 2018, 1:43pm CDT | by , in Latest Science News

 

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Scientists ID Human Brain's Sleep Switch

Out Like a Light: Researchers Discover a Sleep Switch in the Human Brain

Twenty years back in time, a group of neurons was found by Clifford B. Saper, MD/Ph.D., Chairman of the Department of Neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) and his colleagues, that were hypothesized to turn the brain off as far as its sleep switch was concerned.

Now, Saper and colleagues have published a new study in the journal Nature Communications. In this new study, they found that in lab rats, the nerve cells located in hypothalamus region called the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus (VLPO), are actually essential to normal sleep cycles.

What the scientists experimented with was stimulation of the VLPO. The results were conclusive and spoke volumes regarding the fact that the VLPO region was essential to some serious shuteye.

The lab rats had their genes manipulated and a number of scientific tools were used to stimulate the VLPO region in the hypothalamus areas of their brains.

A laser was employed to stir up these cells. This process is commonly termed optogenetics. Other methods involved chemically activating the VLPO region.

Both these techniques caused the lab rats to fall asleep thereby lending credence to the original hypothesis. It appears to be the case that these specialized neurons are vital to quality, restful sleep and any damage to them causes sleep disturbances. Insomnia is one case in point. The brain contains this sleep switch and there are no two ways around that.

Many older individuals and senior citizens tend to lose out on sleep due to a wearing away of this region in their brains. This is only natural and normal since, with the onset of old age, the brain loses some of its sharpness and the sleep switch does not remain the same as regards its integrity.

Yet a group of researchers, later on, came upon a completely different set of conclusions. The experiments they conducted led to the result that stimulation of the VLPO region led to the awakening in the lab rats.

The thing is that if the VLPO region neurons are stimulated a single time or four times per second, they will cause the animal to enter a sleep state. However, if the region is stimulated with ever increasing frequency, the results are the opposite.

They will not react and eventually stop responding. Thus, on the contrary, they go dormant instead of being activated. The point at which these cells stop answering back is 10 stimulations per second. That is the breaking point of the VLPO region.

Furthermore, stimulating these neurons causes the body’s temperature to start coming down. Heat tends to agitate these neurons. Therefore, the trend that is noticed of the body’s temperature coming down when we go to sleep makes sense in the light of this crucial research on the sleep switch of the brain.

Also, this may be one of the major reasons why many people use a blanket as a comforting source for a good night’s sleep during the winter months. As the scientists continued the stimulation of the VLPO incessantly, the lab rats started to grow colder by several degrees.

This region is thus a crucial link in the phenomenon seen in many creatures that hibernate during winter. The stimulation of this brain sleep switch may just send the animal into a prolonged sleep phase.

The region of the brain which is termed the VLPO may send signals to other parts of the brain thereby priming the body for sleep. While contradictory results of the experiments with the VLPO by scientists caused much puzzlement among the laypersons, later on, the selfsame scientists cleared up matters.

Dr. Sapier, one of the team members spoke of how “When the cells are stimulated one to four times per second, they fire each time…resulting in sleep. But if you stimulate them faster than that, they eventually stop firing altogether.” The more scientific research will hopefully unearth even more facts about this mysterious region of the brain that is known as the body’s sleep switch.

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/20" rel="author">Sumayah Aamir</a>
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