There’s no good excuse for deciding to routinely skip out on sleep, says neurobiologist John Peever, professor of cell and systems biology at the University of Toronto.
“Losing half a night of sleep impairs your brain to the same level as it does when you’re legally drunk,” says Peever. “Yet people do this routinely, some of them my dear colleagues, who will in a sense brag about how hard they worked, how little sleep they get. And I always say to them, ‘You could do so much better if you got a good night of sleep.’”
Sleep is vital to brain health, making it important to understand both why we sleep and how we sleep. This information can help pinpoint how healthy sleep processes can go wrong, and how they can lead to particular sleep disorders.
“The brain is actually incredibly busy when you’re sleeping,” explains Peever. “The brain doesn’t simply shut off, and what we do here in my laboratory is we try to understand what parts of the brain are turning on and turning off during sleep so that you have a natural night of sleep.”
The research involves many different technologies, including measuring brain wave activity during sleep. But it’s the new tools from engineering and genetics that Peever is most excited about applying to the science of sleep. In particular, Peever is interested in a disorder called narcolepsy, where people find it very difficult to stay awake.
“What we can actually do now is target a very specific group of cells in the brain, and we can either turn those cells on or turn those cells off, with an amazing ability to do that quickly, as if we were manipulating their normal behaviour,” adds Peever.
Optogenetics and chemogenetics control cellular activity using light and externally introduced molecules, respectively. Being able to precisely and rapidly control these switches gives researchers the ability to replicate the events that happen in sleep disorders like narcolepsy, which can be very sudden.
Being able to both study and manipulate sleep processes illuminates one of our most important daily activities. Hopefully those insights will help more people go out like a light at the right times.