An important new study shows how being awake causes progressive changes to the brain. This could shed light on the function of sleep - but it also raises warnings for neuroscientists.
Italian researchers Huber et al report that Human Cortical Excitability Increases with Time Awake. The experiment was conceptually simple - they measured cortical excitability when people were well rested and then looked to see how it changed as they were kept awake for over 24 hours.
The participants woke up at 7 am on Day 1 and were kept awake all of that day, all of the subsequent night, and all of Day 2. The excitability measurements spanned a period of 30 hours, from 9 am to 3 pm the next day. They were finally allowed to go to sleep on the next night and one final session took place on Day 3. I hope they got well paid for taking part.
The results showed a nice linear increase in excitability with increasing time spent awake. Sleep put this back to normal - mostly:
"Excitability" was measured using electroencephalography (EEG) combined with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). Essentially, they zapped the brain (left frontal cortex) with a strong magnetic pulse, and measured the electrical activity that this provoked in the brain.
It was a small study but the findings look solid, with all six participants showing clearly higher stimulation-evoked potentials after sleep deprivation. EEG cortical theta band activity was also correlated with time spent awake, replicating previous findings.
The authors say that these data fit with the idea that the function of sleep is to prevent the brain from becoming too excitable. I previously described this as the "defragmentation" hypothesis of sleep.
The theory goes that while we're awake, our brains are constantly forming new and stronger synaptic connections, as we learn and remember. Most of the new connections are excitatory. However this creates a problem because the brain must maintain a delicate balance between excitation and inhibition. Too much neural excitation and you'll have a seizure, amongst other things. So some researchers believe that during sleep, the brain "prunes" the new excitatory connections in such a way that the information they store is preserved, but the overall excitability is reset.
These data are the first clear-cut human evidence in favor of the theory. Most of the previous work was in animals.
So sleep researchers will be very interested by this paper, but all neuroscientists should take note. If being awake changes cortical excitability, it means that the time of day that you conduct your experiments could have an impact on your results. EEG researchers should pay particular notice, but it could well be that these changes also affect the fMRI signal.
This could be a serious confounding factor in your data. Suppose, for example, that your healthy controls are more likely to have jobs than your patients with, say, autism or depression - which is sadly all too common. Now people with jobs would naturally prefer to attend your study later in the day, after work, leaving those with more flexible schedules to come in bright and early... you see the problem.
Huber, R., Maki, H., Rosanova, M., Casarotto, S., Canali, P., Casali, A., Tononi, G., and Massimini, M. (2012). Human Cortical Excitability Increases with Time Awake Cerebral Cortex DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhs014