Neuroscience news: Scientists discover how sleep-wake cycle works

(Flickr/Tony Alter)

While many believe that the smell of coffee, the ringing of an alarm clock, or the sound of roosters is what makes people rouse in the morning, neuroscientists have now discovered a more concise and scientific explanation on how the brain can wake you up.

Researchers from Switzerland conducted a study using mice to figure out what part of the brain is responsible for ending a person's light slumber. Through a technique called optogenetics, which uses pulses of light to manipulate neural activity, they found out that stimulating a specific neural circuit can terminate sleep. This circuit lies between the hypothalamus and thalamus. These two regions of the brain are known to be responsible for electroencephalogram (EEG) rhythms during sleep period.

The scientists also tried to stimulate the neurons on the said circuit for a longer period of time. This caused prolonged wakefulness among the mice. Inhibiting the neurons, on the other hand, made the mice slept more deeply and with almost no interruptions.

The new discovery can open doors to many medical possibilities. According to Antoine Adamantidis from the University of Bern, one of the researchers, this could help in the development of new therapeutical approaches to recover people who are trapped in deep, long-term comma. Furthermore, this could cast light on the possible causes of some sleep disorders, such as insomnia.

Alzheimer's and dementia have also been linked to sleep disorders, according to research. Disrupted sleep can lead to more behavioral problems. With the discovery of the circuit, new methods for dealing with these diseases could possibly be uncovered.

"The consequences of sleep perturbations on life quality go far beyond daytime sleepiness and mood alteration. Cognitive impairment, hormonal imbalance and high susceptibility to cardiac or metabolic disorders are amongst some of the negative impacts frequently associated with subtle chronic sleep problems," said Adamantidis.

He stressed, however, that it would take some time before any medical breakthrough in the field could happen.

The study was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience on Dec. 21, 2015.

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