Scientists identify neural switch for dreaming and say that in the not too distant future, they may be able to induce a dream state in humans on demand. Researchers from the University of California-Berkeley found that switching on GABAergic neurons in the medulla of the brain immediately induced REM sleep, better known as the dream phase in mice. They published their achievement in the scientific journal Nature.
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Professor of molecular and cell biology at UC-Berkeley Yang Dan and colleagues discovered that activating these neurons could switch on the dream phase of sleep in mice in a matter of seconds. They were also able to turn off the mice’s ability to dream by deactivating the neurons.
REM makes up about one-quarter of the sleep cycle in mammals. It normally takes up to an hour and half of sleep for us to enter this dream state. The research team suspect that a lack of muscle control occurring during this phase stops us from acting out our dreams. The team wanted to better understand the GABAergic neurons in the medulla and determine if they play a role in allowing REM sleep.
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“GABAergic neurons protrude from the ventral part of the medulla, situated at the top of the spinal cord and certain regions of the brainstem and the hypothalamus – a brain region involved in hormone release and many other bodily functions,” Medical News Today reported, explaining that the researchers placed a light sensitive ion channel into the GABAergic neurons of the mice using a virus. Then, when it was in place, they switched on the GABAergic neurons in mice with a laser light that came from an optical fiber placed in the mice’s brain. They were also able to deactivate the GABAergic neurons by inserting an “inhibitory ion pump” into the same neurons.
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The researchers tracked the activity of the neurons using optogenetics and examined how switching them on and off affected the sleep patterns and dream states of the rodents. It turned out, they had practically total and immediate control over whether or not the mice were dreaming.
“Because of the strong induction of REM sleep – in 94% of the recorded trials our mice entered REM sleep within seconds of activating the neurons – we think this might be a critical node of a relatively small network that makes the decision whether you go into dream sleep or not,” Dan said.
The team says that they better understand how sleep and dreaming works. The team of researchers also believe that since they are now able to turn dreaming phases off and on at will that their research could have clinical implications.
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“Many psychiatric disorders, especially mood disorders, are correlated with changes in REM sleep, and some widely used drugs affect REM sleep, so it seems to be a sensitive indicator of mental and emotional health,” first author Franz Weber, a postdoctoral fellow at UC-Berkeley, explained. The research has wide implications on not just sleep and psychiatric disorders, but also neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, literally any disorders or diseases that are linked to improper sleep patterns or a lack of good dream-time could benefit from this research as it moves forward.
The researchers say that finding this on and off switch for REM sleep will also significantly help them study the mystery of why REM sleep is linked with dreaming.
[photo via Pixabay]