The purpose of sleep is not very well understood. I’ve been fascinated with the topic for a number of years, so I am pretty excited when there’s new developments in the field of sleep research.
A new study sheds light on the role sleep plays in the the ability of the brain’s cells to grow and repair themselves. Preliminary research suggests that sleep replenishes a type of brain cells that go on to make an insulating material known as myelin, which protects our brain’s circuitry.
The research, published in The Journal of Neuroscience, was conducted in mice that were either allowed to sleep, or forced to stay awake. Researchers looked particularly at how sleep affected gene activity of cells called oligodendrocytes, which play a role in the production of myelin. Myelin covers brain and spinal cord nerve cell projections as a sort of “insulation”; researchers explained that it is integral to the movement of electrical impulses from cell to cell.
The study shows that sleep seems to turn on genes known to play a part in the formation of myelin. Conversely, lack of sleep was linked with the activation of genes associated with cell stress and death.
Dr Chiara Cirelli and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin, where the study was conducted, explained:
For a long time, sleep researchers focused on how the activity of nerve cells differs when animals are awake versus when they are asleep.
Now it is clear that the way other supporting cells in the nervous system operate also changes significantly depending on whether the animal is asleep or awake.