Researchers at the University of Oxford have discovered brain processes that are common to both ageing and sleep – research that could find new treatments for sleep disorders such as insomnia.
The research, which was reported in the journal “Nature” shows how oxidative stress (the cause of ageing and some degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s) is related to sleep and therefore how a chronic lack of sleep can actually cause a shortened life span. The term oxidative stress refers to the incorrect use of oxygen in the body.
The leader of the team at the University’s Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, Professor Gero Miesenbock, has stated that human cells are affected by incorrectly contained oxygen combustion and this is known as oxidative stress. The research shows that this stress also activates the neurons that control when the body sleeps.
The study looked at fruit flies and how they regulate sleep via their sleep control neurons. These are thought to exist in humans as well. These neurons act like on and off switches and are active during sleep and inactive when awake.
The study found that the main difference between the on and off function of these neurons is how much electricity is flowing through a part of the brain called the Shaker channel. The Shaker is in turn affected by molecules and chemicals that are influenced by oxidative stress. Sleeplessness causes oxidative stress and this drives the way the chemicals behave.
Professor Miesenbrook has also pointed out that this discovery could change the way that medications for sleep are developed. Drugs that affect the chemicals that in turn affect the Shaker could result in fewer side effects and more targeted treatments. He points out that sleep drugs are generally associated with forgetfulness and addiction and this could be avoided if this mechanism was targeted.