A Wake-up Call on Sleep Disorders

Too many of us live by the catchphrase, “sleep when you’re dead.” When it feels like there is more to do than the day allows, we surrender our sleep hours and then make up for it by consuming an excessive amount of caffeine the next day. After a few days, we’re so exhausted that we can hardly hold our heads up.

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Your Brain in 2050: Closing the Gap Between Sci-Fi and Reality

wsf panel

Panel from left to right: Michael Maharbiz, Sheila Nireberg, John Donoghue, Gary Marcus, Robert Krulwich

I am a huge fan of the sci-fi genre. I have read Cat’s Cradle, Ender’s Game, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and seen movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Matrix more times than I care to say. I am drawn to these fantastical visions of the future because I love predicting what our world and our species may look like in 50 or 100 years. As I discovered last night at a World Science Festival panel discussion, “Cells to Silicon: Your Brain in 2050,” science fiction’s vision of our future is often closer to reality than we may realize.

The discussion, moderated by radio and TV journalist Robert Krulwich, included neuroscientists John P. Donoghue and Sheila Nirenberg as well as research psychologist Gary Marcus and electrical engineer and computer scientist Michael M. Maharbiz. Each of these experts is helping to close the gap between science fiction and reality.

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Brainwave: The Firefighter

When I have a lot on my mind I go for a long run to clear my head. Clearing the mind of anxieties, fears, and thoughts is therapeutic and we all have outlets that can help us. Some people chase the thrill of an adrenaline rush, find a humdrum task to occupy the mind, medicate, meditate, or, in extreme cases like Lt. Dennis Gordon of the FDNY, run into burning buildings to put out fires and rescue trapped occupants.

Clearing the mind was an important theme—as were fear and panic—at last night’s Brainwave discussion, “The Firefighter,” between distinguished New York City firefighter, Lieutenant Dennis Gordon, and psychologist Jeremy Safran, Ph.D., at the Rubin Museum of Art. The conversation between the clinical psychologist and the introspective, Buddhist practicing, firefighter of 36 years became quite spiritual.

firefighter(From right to left: Lieutenant Dennis Gordon and Jeremy Safran, Ph.D. (Credit: Michael Palma for the Rubin Museum of Art)

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Neuroethics: Consciousness, End of Life Decisions

Studies have shown that as many as 40 percent of patients believed to be in a persistent vegetative state are misdiagnosed and are actually minimally conscious. Why is this? What should be done? Experts tackled these complex and difficult questions at an International Neuroethics Society (INS) event in San Diego last Friday.

There are several levels of consciousness involving awakeness and awareness. Patients in a coma are neither awake nor aware. Those in a vegetative state are awake, but not aware. Minimally conscious patients are awake with intermittent periods of awareness. There is also locked-in syndrome, in which patients are awake and aware but unable to move or communicate verbally.

Too often, patients are labeled as vegetative when in fact they are minimally conscious. Sometimes, the initial assessment is not wrong. According to Dana Alliance member Joe Fins, M.D., many who suffer a traumatic brain injury or other devastating health event that leaves them in a vegetative state remain in that state upon leaving the hospital three to four weeks later. But it is not uncommon for a patient to improve to minimally conscious some time after.

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We sleep, why again?

In the October issue of the Report on Progress, titled “Why is Sleep So Important?,” Giulio Tononi, M.D., Ph.D., and Chiara Cirelli, M.D., Ph.D., discuss the effects sleep has on the human brain.

The sleeping brain is almost as active as during wake: neurons fire at comparable rates as in wake, and metabolism is only slightly reduced. Moreover, we all know that every night while we lie asleep, blind, dumb, and almost paralyzed, we are in for a remarkable treat: hours upon hours of free slide shows and movies – a virtual reality made up by your brain that is so powerful it rivals the one in “The Matrix.” This is easy to show: have somebody wake you up at random times during the night, whether in REM (REM stands for rapid eye movements) or in non-REM (NREM) sleep and ask what was going through your mind. More often than not, you will find that you were experiencing something: at times mere snapshots and still scenes, at times full-fledged, vivid dreams, especially toward the morning. It is not surprising, then, that unless you wake up immediately, you don’t remember anything at all. To the point that, although everybody dreams, many people are convinced they never do. But then, if during sleep the brain does not actually rest, why does it disconnect from the environment, turn on its internal activity, broadcast movies on its private network, but form no new memories?

Interested? Read the full article.

—Blayne Jeffries

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