Washington: Researchers at Oxford University have identified the switch in the brain that sends us off to sleep.
The switch works by regulating the activity of a handful of sleep-promoting nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain.
The neurons fire when we’re tired and need sleep, and dampen down when we’re fully rested. “When you’re tired, these neurons in the brain shout loud and they send you to sleep,” Professor Gero Miesenbock of Oxford University, in whose laboratory the new research was performed, said.
Although the research was carried out in fruit flies, or Drosophila, the scientists say the sleep mechanism is likely to be relevant to humans.
Dr Jeffrey Donlea, one of the lead authors of the study, said that, ‘there is a similar group of neurons in a region of the human brain.
These neurons are also electrically active during sleep and, like the flies’ cells, are the targets of general anaesthetics that put us to sleep. It’s therefore likely that a molecular mechanism similar to the one we have discovered in flies also operates in humans.”
The researchers say that pinpointing the sleep switch might help us identify new targets for novel drugs – potentially to improve treatments for sleep disorders.
The findings are published in the journal Neuron.