A new review from researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) has revealed the discovery of multiple neural circuits that are responsible for managing our mind’s cycles of sleeping and waking. The team hopes their findings will help us better understand sleep, which remains largely a mystery despite decades of research.

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So, what do these findings mean for the future of sleep science? According to a press release from BIDMC, these results could lead to improved remedies for those who don’t sleep enough, or ways to help those who don’t feel awake enough during conscious hours.

Resarchers used two technological processes to reach these discoveries about the brain: chemogenetics and optogenetics. In chemogenetics, "researchers use drugs that have an effect only in a genetically-defined group of cells to determine the neurons’ role," the press release notes. Meanwhile, "optogenetics uses laser light to turn on or turn off targeted brain cells."

By combining chemogenetics and optogenetics, researchers were able to better understand what happens in the mind — especially the brain stem and the hypothalamus — throughout the sleep/wake cycle.

"We can now interrogate neurons in a more precise way," said lead study author Thomas Scammell, MD, in the release. "The techniques are very similar, but optogenetics works over a short time scale, on the order of seconds. With chemogenetics, we can watch over several hours what happens when we turn certain neurons on or off."

According to Gallup, 40 percent of Americans get fewer than seven hours of sleep each night, on average. Researchers from BIDMC also looked at how factors like caffeine and light — specifically from electronics — impact these brain neurons which then affect our nightly rest.

"People increasingly use their electronic devices in bed, which tricks the brain into thinking it's being exposed to daylight," said Scammell. "The internal clock gets reset, making it much harder to wake up in the morning."

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Moving forward, these results may deepen our understanding of sleep loss, and its connection to an increased risk of metabolic disease, cancer, and mood disorders.

Source: Scammell TE, Arrigoni E, Lipton JO. Neural Circuitry of Wakefulness and Sleep. Neuron. 2017.

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