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New study sheds light on science of sleep

09-09-2009

Sleep has long been a physiological mystery to scientists with no clearly agreed reason behind the state, however a recently published US academic study may offer some new insights into why sleep exists. The research by Jerome Siegel at the Centre for Sleep Research at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behaviour at UCLA claims that sleeping is directly related to an animal’s need to “increase efficiency” and “decrease risk”.

In studying the sleeping patterns of various animals Siegel and his team found that sleep times were adjustable depending on the daytime requirements at any given period, largely placing the need for sleep as key to survival. According to the research, the variable nature of sleep bears similarities with the temporary ‘inactive’ states experienced by species such as plants and micro-organisms. As these species don’t have nervous systems, the findings of the study appear to contradict claims that sleep is directly linked to the wellbeing and ‘maintenance’ of the brain.

“Sleep has normally been viewed as something negative for survival because sleeping animals may be vulnerable to predation and they can’t perform the behaviours that ensure survival,” said Professor Siegel. “So it’s been thought that sleep must serve some as-yet unidentified physiological or neural function that can’t be accomplished when animals are awake.”

“We see sleep as lying on a continuum that ranges from these dormant states like torpor and hibernation, on to periods of continuous activity without any sleep, such as during migration, where birds can fly for days on end without stopping.”

The research was published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

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