Register for an account

X

Enter your name and email address below.

Your email address is used to log in and will not be shared or sold. Read our privacy policy.

X

Website access code

Enter your access code into the form field below.

If you are a Zinio, Nook, Kindle, Apple, or Google Play subscriber, you can enter your website access code to gain subscriber access. Your website access code is located in the upper right corner of the Table of Contents page of your digital edition.

Mind

#32: Sleep Switch Found in the Brain


By Kathleen McAuliffeDecember 16, 2010 6:00 AM

Newsletter

Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Every night we all participate in a small biological miracle—the transition from wakefulness to sleep. Last September researchers at Washington State University made a notable advance in understanding the chemical trigger that allows that shift to happen.

The key to sleep turns out to be one of the body’s most important molecules: ATP, the compound that stores energy for use in metabolism. Neurobiologist James Krueger and his colleagues discovered that repeated firing of neurons in the brain while we are awake causes them to release ATP into the spaces between the cells. As the molecule accumulates, it bonds to neighboring neurons and glial (support) cells; this allows the cells to absorb other chemicals—such as tumor necrosis factor and interleukin 1—that most likely put those cells into a sleep state.

This finding implies that sleep “is not a whole brain phenomenon,” Krueger says. It occurs only in neural circuits that have been most active during the day and so have released the most ATP. Translation: Some parts of the brain can remain relatively alert even after we fall asleep. “This is an extremely important finding,” says Mark Mahowald, a sleep expert at the University of Minnesota who was not involved in the research. “The notion that only part of the brain sleeps fits very well with our understanding of sleepwalking, when individuals have their eyes open and easily navigate around objects yet have no conscious awareness of doing this.” A clearer picture of ATP’s role in the process could point the way to new drugs for treating insomnia and other sleep disorders.

    2 Free Articles Left

    Want it all? Get unlimited access when you subscribe.

    Subscribe

    Already a subscriber? Register or Log In

    Want unlimited access?

    Subscribe today and save 70%

    Subscribe

    Already a subscriber? Register or Log In