Danish researcher part of team that finds brain’s sleep switch

Discovery could have a significant impact on the future treatment of depression

Maiken Nedergaard, a professor at the Center for Basic and Translational Neuroscience at the University of Copenhagen, is part of an international research team that has discovered new important knowledge about how humans fall asleep and wake up.

The researchers have uncovered which role neuromodulators – a messenger released from a neuron in the central nervous system that impacts on neuron groups and keeps humans awake during the day – play during sleep and how noradrenaline, dopamine and serotonin wake us up.

The discovery could potentially have a considerable impact on the future treatment of depression. The salt balance in the extracellular space in the brain is critical.

“These salts play a much larger and much more decisive role than hitherto imagined,” said Nedergaard.

“The discovery reveals a completely new layer of understanding of how the brain functions. First and foremost, we learn more about how sleep is controlled. It may, however, also lead to a better future understanding of why some people suffer convulsive fits enduring sleepless nights.”

READ MORE: Danish researchers want DNA from the dead

Lots of potential
The research, which has been published in the noted scientific journal Science, involved putting a tiny electrode into the brains of mice in order to measure the salt balance in their brains. When the mice went to sleep the researchers could measure the salt changes. They could also use a small syringe to manipulate the salt concentration in the brains of the mice and thus put them to sleep or wake them up.

“It’s much simpler than previously believed in brain research,” said Nedergaard.

“The research conducted used to focus only on the brain’s neural activity as a means of mapping and analysing complicated processes such as being asleep or awake. Our study shows that the brain uses something as simple as changing the level of salts to control whether we are asleep or awake”