Scientists in Britain have made an announcement that is likely to make insomniacs across the world cheer. Researchers at Oxford University’s Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour say a study of fruit flies has allowed them to locate the switch in the brain that sends us off to sleep.
The switch works by regulating the activity of a handful of sleep-promoting nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain. The neurons fire when we’re tired and need sleep, and dampen down when we’re fully rested.
‘When you’re tired, these neurons in the brain shout loud and they send you to sleep,’ says Professor Gero Miesenböck of Oxford University, in whose laboratory the new research was performed.
Although the research was carried out in fruit flies, or Drosophila, the scientists say the sleep mechanism is likely to be relevant to humans.
Dr Jeffrey Donlea, one of the lead authors of the study, explains: ‘There is a similar group of neurons in a region of the human brain. These neurons are also electrically active during sleep and, like the flies’ cells, are the targets of general anaesthetics that put us to sleep. It’s therefore likely that a molecular mechanism similar to the one we have discovered in flies also operates in humans.’
The work in fruit flies allowed the critical part of the sleep switch to be discovered. ‘We discovered mutant flies that couldn’t catch up on their lost sleep after they had been kept awake all night,’ says Dr. Donlea.
In the mutant flies, the researchers were able to show a key molecular component of the electrical activity switch is broken and the sleep-inducing neurons are always off, causing insomnia.
Practical applications of the finding are likely years away, but the researchers say that pinpointing the sleep switch might help us identify new targets for novel drugs – potentially to improve treatments for sleep disorders.
The findings are reported in the journal Neuron.
Source: News Release