Could the mystery of sleep finally be solved? Do we finally know how sleep works? We very well may, thanks to a new study from researchers at Oxford University. They believe that they have found a so called ‘sleep-switch’ molecule that could be responsible for consciousness. Switch it and out we go, like a light.
In fact, the discovery of this molecule could reinforce the aptness of that old aphorism, out like a light. When we go to sleep it does seem like there is a switch being flicked, and these researchers may well have found the switch. What is even more interesting is that this switch seems to be the same one that is flicked when we are put under for surgery with anaesthetic.
With this discovery we could be only a few years away from a highly effective yet near side effect free cure for any and all forms of insomnia. Now that we know what molecules are able to trigger sleep, we may be able to tailor a cure that is able switch those insomniacs off whenever they want.
So how has this discovery come about? Well first they found the switch back in 2011. Researchers at the Washington State University located the switch but were unable to switch it themselves. Then the team at Oxford University found that molecules that regulate the specific neurons of the switch, thus providing the ability for direct and intentional manipulation of the switch.
The team at Oxford decided to repeat the Washington State team’s study. They put a group of fruit flies (the scientist’s favourite guinea pig) through sleep deprivation to find out which molecules where the ones that activated the sleep neurons. They found that them, and in the process may have not just have found how to switch humans on and off, but may have also peeled back some of the biggest mysteries about sleep, including why we sleep at all.
While they are yet to find the same switch in human brains, they believe that the same mechanism will be at work in virtually all animals as Mother Nature rarely bothers reinventing the wheel if the wheel works, which is why we are able to use guinea pigs (and flies) in our experiments.
They think that the way the switch works normally is acts as a homeostat. A homeostat works much like a thermostat. The longer we stay awake the more pressure builds on the homeostat to the point where eventually the switch is flicked and out we go.
As the find out how the switch works in humans they will be able to see what is causing the molecule to flick the switch, which in turn will provide insight into the reason that we go to sleep. In other words, by knowing how the switch is flicked we can work backward to see what is causing this and ultimately we may uncover the reasons for sleep.
The take home for all insomniacs (who may have struggled to read all this as they are too tired is) HELP MAY BE AT HAND!
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