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Scientists unveil clues to deep sleep mystery


Researchers have identified a specific type of neuron in the parafacial zone (PZ) in the mammalian brainstem that is associated with deep sleep.

The study, conducted by researchers at Harvard School of Medicine and the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences indicates that the neurons as the second “sleep node” control sleep-promoting activity in the brain.

Located in the primitive brainstem, the neuron makes the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) which is responsible for deep sleep, according to the study report published in the journal of Nature Neuroscience.

“The brainstem is a primordial part of the brain that regulates basic functions necessary for survival, such as breathing, blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature.”

The team used a set of innovative tools to precisely monitor these neurons and control them remotely. The tools provided the researchers to have ability to turn the neurons on and off at will.

“To get the precision required for these experiments, we introduced a virus into the PZ that expressed a ‘designer’ receptor on GABA neurons only but didn’t otherwise alter brain function,” explains the senior author of the study Patrick Fuller, assistant professor at Harvard.

“When we turned on the GABA neurons in the PZ, the animals quickly fell into a deep sleep without the use of sedatives or sleep aids,” Fuller stated.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the study makes the researchers be able to answer fundamental questions of brain function.

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