Sleep switch may unlock new therapies for sleep disorders

September 7, 2016 Providence Health Team

Scientists from the Stanford University School of Medicine say they have found the circuit in the brain that rouses mice from their sleep. And while the study focused on mice, the researchers say brain circuitry is similar in all vertebrates, which means the findings could help in developing treatment for people with sleep disorders. 

It’s the first time, they say, that science has pinpointed the location in the brain where the sleep-wake cycle ties into the neural reward system, which guides the search for food and the flight from danger.

“This has potential huge clinical relevance,” said the study’s senior author, Luis de Lecea, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford. “Insomnia, a multibillion-dollar market for pharmaceutical companies, has traditionally been treated with drugs such as benzodiazepines that nonspecifically shut down the entire brain. Now we see the possibility of developing therapies that, by narrowly targeting this newly identified circuit, could induce much higher-quality sleep.”

The trouble with sleeping disorders

From 25 to 30 percent of the general adult population in the United States – and a comparable proportion of children and adolescents – has some form of troubled sleep, according to the National Institutes of Health. Sleep disorders are “proven contributors to disability, morbidity and mortality,” the organization reports.

Most people who experience sleep disturbances are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed and remain untreated, the NIH said. But increasingly, regulators recognize the issue can affect public safety, from people who drive while exhausted to health care providers working longer than 12-hour shifts. The NIH operates the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research to address the problem.

The Stanford study suggests it may be possible to target the brain circuit with medication in order to promote sleep.

Said de Lecea: “Perhaps giving a person the right dose, at just the right time, of a drug with just the right pharmacokinetic properties so its effect will wear off at the right time would work a lot better than bombarding the brain with benzodiazepines, such as Valium, that knock out the entire brain.”

To learn more about sleep

The study, “VTA dopaminergic neurons regulate ethologically relevant sleep–wake behaviors,” was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. (Payment required).

Stanford’s medical school published a more reader-friendly account of the research with the headline “Investigators identify brain circuit that drives sleep-wake states.”

The National Institutes of Health invites you to “Test Your Sleep I.Q.” with an interactive quiz.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides a “Sleep and Sleep Disorders” portal, with sections on key sleep disorders, the links between sleep disorders and chronic disease, tips for getting better sleep and data about people’s sleep habits.

If you have trouble sleeping, talk to your health care provider about ways you can get more rest. You can find a Providence provider here.

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