One of the things I have always loved about science is the fact that it will never stop. We will never know everything and, therefore, will always keep learning. What amazes me about science is how little we know about some of the most seemingly simple things. For instance, what is the one thing that every single person reading this did today? They woke up. But, did you know that scientists have just recently discovered exactly how our brains go through the complex chemical process of waking us?
Neuroscientists in Switzerland have been focusing on a specific network of connections in the brain between the hypothalamus and the thalamus that is responsible from bringing our brains going from being asleep to being awake. According to their findings, when they exposed a certain part of the neural connection to light, they were able to trigger the waking process in mice. Not only did the light wake the mice, it could be used to keep them awake. No, it’s not weird that I’m pointing a flashlight at my head right now…
They also found that by inhibiting the circuits in the same part of the brain, they could induce a deeper sleep. The neuroscientists know which parts of the brain are associated with deep REM and non-REM sleep, but they still don’t quite know how they work. Although the mechanics remain a mystery, the discovery of the neural network is a big step toward figuring out exactly how our brains control sleep and wakefulness.
Read: WATCH: The Amazing Science Behind How our Brains Really Work
So what’s the big deal with knowing how our brains rouse us from sleep? One application the scientists are excited about is the potential to wake long-term coma patients. More importantly, the more we learn about this part of the brain, the more doctors can begin to understand certain types of sleeping disorders. Sleep disorders are becoming an epidemic of sorts, affecting between 50-70 million people every year. Antoine Adamantidis, a researcher from the University of Bern, said: “The consequences of sleep perturbations on life quality go far beyond daytime sleepiness and mood alteration.
Cognitive impairment, hormonal imbalance and high susceptibility to cardiac or metabolic disorders are amongst some of the negative impacts frequently associated with subtle chronic sleep problems.” Having a better understanding of how to make our brains sleep and wake more efficiently could provide new therapeutic options for people who suffer from chronic sleep disorders.