A large part of sleep research is dedicated to finding the exact part of the brain that is most responsible for our ability to sleep deeply and restoratively. Determining exactly what that area is represents the first step in developing a targeted medication that will truly provide rest for those afflicted with a number of different sleep disorders. Now scientists from the Imperial College London believe that they have pinpointed that region in the brain in mice, and are hopeful that their research will lead to a breakthrough for human insomnia.
According to a study published in Psychology Central, the researchers have found that when the preoptic hypothalamus is activated in the brains of laboratory mice, deep sleep is the result. The result is very similar to what is seen when sedative medications are administered.
According to the study’s co-author, Professor Bill Wisden, “Lack of sleep is a really serious problem for many people, such as people suffering from stress or people working irregular shifts, and it affects their physical and mental health. There are many different sleeping pills available but none of them provide rest that is as restorative as natural sleep. We hope that our new research will ultimately lead to new ways of addressing this problem.”
The researchers’ work centers on the fact that sleeping pills, though effective, do not provide the same type of restorative sleep as people experience from natural, unmedicated sleep. Their theory is that the stimulation of this region of the brain will provide an answer that works without drugs and which provides an enhanced effect. That has been their experience with the laboratory animals, whose sleep was found to be completely restorative.
Wisden says, “If you do’t sleep for a long period, your body shuts down, almost as if you had taken a drug. We’ve shown that sedative drugs trigger the same neuroms, making the two types of unconsciousness very similar.”
It is the researchers’ hope that their findings will provide a greater understanding of the general effect that sedatives have on the brain. By providing information on which area of the brain actually triggers deep sleep, a path is provided to a more targeted medication that would have fewer side effects, enabling people to take medication without having to face the groggy effect in the morning that so many sleeping aids currently have.
Another researcher, Nick Franks, Ph.D. of Imperial College London’s Department of Life Sciences says, “Although we know that certain sedatives are effective, there are lots of gaps in scientists’ knowledge in terms of precisely what sedatives are doing in the brain. We looked at the class of sedative drugs commonly used for patients undergoing investigative procedures or minor operations, to try and identify the circuitry in the brain that they are affecting. What we found was really striking. Most people might think that sedative drugs would work by directly shutting down certain neural pathways but actually what happened was that they first switched on one particular area – the preoptic hypothalamus – and this then caused other parts of the brain to shut down.”