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Hope is in sight for insomniacs

A team of scientists from the University of Geneva has identified the neurones (pictured) which send us to sleep and keep us awake. It is hoped that the discovery will lead to a better understanding of sleeping disorders.

A team of scientists from the University of Geneva has identified the neurones (pictured) which send us to sleep and keep us awake. It is hoped that the discovery, revealed in the latest edition of the science journal Nature, will lead to a better understanding of sleeping disorders and produce more effective treatments that are less harmful to the sufferer's health.

It is the first time the cells that promote sleep have been isolated in vitro, and their characteristics described. "We discovered that the sleep neurones and those that control wakefulness are capable of interacting and influencing each other. So when the sleep neurones activate, the waking ones get weaker. We call it reciprocal inhibition," said Professor Michel Mühlethaler, who led the research team along with Dr Mauro Serafin.

Professor Mühlethaler explains that sleep neurones differ from other nerve cells in that they are triangular and have their own electrical activity. They are kept inactive during wakefulness by three substances - noradrenalin, acetylcholin and serotonin - which encourage brain activity.

The team from the university's medical faculty has been collaborating with two French laboratories, the INSERM in Lyon and the CNRS in Paris, for the past 18 months.

"It's difficult to say at the moment exactly what implications our discovery will have," Mühlethaler said. "At the moment we're looking more precisely at the mechanisms of sleep. By doing so, you're probably able to get closer to an understanding of why we sleep, what are the major determinants."

He said that, with a better understanding of sleep, we might get closer to a better comprehension of some pathologies related to sleep.

"You could imagine that one long term implication might be better treatment for sleep disorders - better pills that would be more physiological and entail less dependency and fewer side-effects. But this is not an avenue we'll go down in the near future. It's not guaranteed that these neurones will provide a better treatment, but it's an interesting avenue we can try," Mühlethaler said.

by Roy Probert



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