Tweak your brain to stay alert when sleep-deprived

August 1st, 2008 - 12:36 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Aug 1 (IANS) Staying awake slows down the brain, while sound sleep ensures peak mental performance and its deprivation only worsens these effects. Washington University (WU) researchers got around this by genetically tweaking a part of the brain involved in memory to keep sleep deprived fruit flies mentally fit. The trick: make more copies of the brain messenger dopamine.

“The ultimate goal is to find new ways to help people like the armed forces and first responders stay alert and on top of things when they have to be awake for extended periods of time,” said WU researcher Andrew Shaw.

“We have drugs now that can keep people awake, but they’re addictive and lose their effectiveness with repeated use. This research should help us find methods for maintaining mental acuity that have more specific effects, are less addictive and retain their potency.”

Shaw’s lab was the first to show that fruit flies enter a state of inactivity comparable to sleep. They demonstrated that the flies have periods of inactivity where greater stimulation is required to rouse them.

These periods begin at night; like human sleep they are cyclic over the course of the night, with sleep cycles lasting 20-25 minutes. Also like humans, flies deprived of sleep one day will try to make up for the lost time by sleeping more the next day, a phenomenon referred to as increased sleep drive or sleep debt.

For the new study, co-author Laurent Seugnet revealed that sleep deprivation impairs learning in flies. A brain messenger known as dopamine is linked to some of the mental capabilities harmed by sleep loss.

Researchers decided to test if this messenger could be used to block learning impairment in sleep-deprived flies. Seugnet genetically altered a line of flies so they made more copies of a dopamine receptor in brain regions known as the mushroom bodies.

These areas are roughly equivalent to the human hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory. Sleep-deprived flies with extra dopamine receptors could still learn as if they had a full night’s sleep, Seugnet found.

“Using this gene and other related genes, we may be able to find better ways to boost performance for someone like a relief worker who’s had to stay awake for six straight days trying to save people trapped by an earthquake,” Shaw said.

The results will appear in the Aug 5 edition of Current Biology.

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