Sleep Switch Molecules Discovered


The molecules triggering a sleep switch has been discovered and may answer the question why human beings sleep at all, according to researchers at Oxford University.  Researchers believe that the neurons activated when people are tired are the same ones that are involved when people are put under anesthetic, and there is hope that the discovery of the molecules that trigger the “sleep switch” could lead to new cures for the insomnia that plagues millions globally.

While usually believed to simply be an inability to fall asleep, insomnia is actually a lack of quality of sleep as well as a lack of quantity of sleep and therefore covers a range of sleep disorders.  Researchers are hoping that if they can discover how to manipulate the switch, they will be able to help those for whom insomnia is a regular struggle.  The molecules that actually regulate the neurons into motion, thereby activating the sleep switch, were discovered in this most recent study.  The switch itself was discovered in a 2011 Washington State University study.

Oxford University researchers decided to replicate the Washington State University study, and put fruit flies through sleep deprivation in order to determine which molecules were responsible for activating sleep neurons.  It was shown in the initial study that there was a clear connection between sleep and the ability to create long-term memory, and in discovering the molecules that activate the neurons responsible for the so-called sleep switch, scientists may not only be able to help insomniacs drift off, but they may also be able to discover some of the greater mysteries surrounding the whole notion of slumber.

Scientists believe that there is a similar switch in humans; while the dorsal fan shaped body is the neurological switch that appears to be responsible for sending these insects into sleep mode, scientists have not yet found the same switch in the human brain.  However, it is believed that there are similar switches in the human brain, so the potential of finding a trigger to alleviate symptoms of insomnia is at hand.  Discovering the molecules behind the sleep switch has energized the Oxford researchers, and currently, they are trying to discover what internal trigger helps fire humanity’s sleep switch.

It’s believed that there is a balance between the body clock and a human being’s sleep homeostat.  A homeostat works in much the same way as a thermostat does.  The current theory is that as humans stay up longer, there is increasing pressure on the homeostat and ultimately, the trigger goes off and we are sent to sleep.

The discovery of the molecules involved in the sleep switch in flies has inspired Oxford University researchers to press onward with their study as they try and determine what, exactly, the human trigger is.  While the scientists believe that humans have a similar switch as is found in fruit flies, research needs to continue into the sleep switch for humans and the molecules which could trigger it.  In determining the switch, scientists could ultimately discover why humans and other animals need to sleep.

By Christina St-Jean


Washington University in St. Louis

Medical News Today




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