Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Sleep Switch

By Tim Hannan

Researchers have located a brain circuit that regulates sleep and wakefulness.

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Sleep is often described as one of the three pillars of a healthy life, along with regular exercise and a balanced diet. Yet while studies have consistently demonstrated the detrimental effects of poor sleep on physical and mental well-being, much less is known about the processes that regulate sleep and wakefulness, including the location and interaction of the neurobiological mechanisms critical to the initiation of sleep.

Delegates to the annual conference of the Australasian Sleep Association (ASA) held this month in Adelaide will be discussing the findings of a new study that has identified a specific brain circuit that drives sleep–wake states. As the ASA President Dr Maree Barnes summarised, “sleep researchers have long been looking for the key to what makes us sleep and what keeps us awake. Scientists at Stanford University have now moved one step closer to discovering this switch – the dopamine-secreting neurons of the ventral tegmental area.”

It had long been suspected that the brain regions that drive goal-directed behaviours and those that regulate sleep must be coordinated in some way. However, the precise location of the mechanism involved in this interaction between reward and arousal systems had not been identified.

In the study, published last month in Nature Neuroscience, Ada Eban-Rothschild and colleagues at Stanford University...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.