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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From the Archives: A Neuroscientist Describes His Stroke

At the AAAS/Dana event on sleep last month [see webcast], I was reminded of the time I interviewed sleep expert and Dana Alliance member J. Allan Hobson. At the time, he was excited about his Dreamstage Brain and Sleep Science Museum in East Burke, VT, and he also sold me on his book, From Angels to Neurones: Art and the New Science of Dreaming, which he allowed us to excerpt for a Cerebrum essay. Since then, we’ve talked with him about why we need to sleep to remember.

But his essay that hit me hardest was a more-personal one he wrote for Cerebrum in 2002, “Shock Waves: A Scientist Studies His Stroke.” Hobson had a stroke in 2001, and here describes his recovery in detail, trying to make sense of mysterious changes in his sleep and dreaming. Near-fatal heart failure, bizarre side effects of medications, and other aftershocks followed, and he kept trying to understand developments his doctors often dismissed. “A speculative theoretical bent has always characterized my science,” writes Hobson. “I feel impelled—and pleased—to turn it on myself.”

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Wake Up! The Science of Sleep

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Carlson/AAAS

Photo courtesy of Rebecca Carlson/AAAS

Why don’t people care more about sleep? We wake up early and go to bed late, and let our kids do the same, trying to put more “day” in our days, when it’s the nights that build our memories and heal our brains and the rest of our bodies.

The National Institute of Medicine has called sleep disorders and sleep deprivation “an unmet public health problem,” Michael Twery, director of National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, told an audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC, on Tuesday.

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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

Gene Helps to Influence Sleep Pattern and Time of Death

According to findings published in the November 2012 issue of Annals of Neurology, a new gene variant has been identified that predicts not only if you’re a morning or night person, but also what time of day you’re likely to die.

Harvard Medical School News reports:

“The internal ‘biological clock’ regulates many aspects of human biology and behavior, such as preferred sleep times, times of peak cognitive performance, and the timing of many physiological processes. It also influences the timing of acute medical events like stroke and heart attack,” says first author Andrew Lim, who conducted the work as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

Lim’s research, which stemmed from an earlier study on sleeping problems and aging led by Dana Alliance member Clifford Saper, M.D., Ph.D., and funded by the Dana Foundation, compared wake-sleep behavior of healthy 65 year olds to their genotypes.

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