WSU researchers are uncovering the mechanism behind sleep and the sensation of sleepiness.
Discover Magazine named James Krueger, director of research at WSU Spokane’s Sleep and Performance Research Center (SPRC), and his associates’ work among the “Top 100 Stories of 2010.”
Krueger’s paper, “ATP and the purine type 2 X7 receptor affect sleep,” was ranked number 32 in a list of science related stories. The list included events such as the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Haiti earthquake.
Krueger has been a leader in sleep research for years. He said his lab worked to understand the reason why people experience the sensation of sleepiness. Research indicated that sleepiness is caused by the release of ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, in the brain.
As neurons are fired, energy-storing ATP is released and bonds to receptors in the brain. These cells are then able to absorb other chemicals that will put them into a sleep-like state.
“You need to know how the brain’s translating activity into sleepiness,” Kreuger said. “We made the essential first step.” The discovery indicates after a period of sleep deprivation, it is possible for certain parts of the brain to go into a sleep-like state while the rest remains awake.
Gregory Belenky, director of the SPRC, explained this phenomenon is evident in studies using rats. If one of a rat’s whiskers is stimulated, then only the part in the brain connected to that whisker will become sleepy.
Hans Van Dongen, assistant director of the SPRC, said human tests indicate this same behavior in the human brain. He said the complexity of the task does not translate to how it affects the brain.
In fact, he said, a sleep deprived person will often struggle with a simple, repetitive task because it only uses one part of the brain, therefore using more ATP. A subject completing a more complex task that uses many parts of the brain in lower capacities will usually be more successful.
“There is a key role for metabolism in what makes these units of the brain fall asleep,” he said. “The reason that these distinct pathways become interrupted is because you’re using all the fuel too fast.” Van Dongen also said the research indicates that because parts of the brain can process information independently, they can also fall asleep independently after a period of sleep deprivation.
“They don’t normally do that,” he said. “But when we put ourselves through sleep deprivation those parts of the brain will fall asleep while the rest of the brain is still awake.” According to Discover Magazine, this new understanding of the use of ATP in the brain could lead to the development of new drugs for sleep disorders.
“We’ve always been looking for stuff that makes sleep from a pill look like more normal sleep,” Van Dongen said.
Krueger said the research may also offer new ways of diagnosing sleep disorders and provide new information about why lack of sleep is associated with issues such as weight gain and poor performance.
The “Top 100 Stories of 2010” can be found in the January-February edition of Discover Magazine.
“It’s good for me, good for the university and a good morale booster for the lab,” Krueger said. “That’s a big time magazine. It’s really nice to have the publicity.”