5 Questions with an Expert on Sleep and the Brain
Why do you study sleep?
The problems I am drawn to are those that a five-year-old would be interested in (at least mine seems to be!). They are deceptively simple, so when you start scratching beneath the surface, other questions emerge that are unanswered and mysterious. I can’t think of another behavior that’s so familiar to all of us, yet harder to explain, than sleep.
What are you trying to understand?
We all think that we understand sleep, without thinking about it too much. We say “I sleep because I am tired.” But what does that mean? Sleep is bizarre. For so many hours you are perceptually disengaged from your environment and from your internal states, so you can’t tend to your offspring or to any of your own needs. You’re vulnerable, you’re seemingly unproductive. But as scientists we know there must be something productive underlying this behavior or it wouldn’t happen. That’s what I’m interested in understanding. Another basic question is how do you go from a state of awareness and cognition and emotion and engagement with the world to this state that in many ways resembles death but is quickly reversible?
What can fruit flies tell us about sleep in humans?
If you look at some of the genes known to regulate sleep, they are conserved between flies and us. Also, many of the pharmacological agents that regulate human sleep have the same effects in flies. Caffeine, for instance, arouses flies. We can relate to this, but most importantly that response suggests that the underlying molecular mechanisms of sleep regulation are conserved—and conserved mechanisms are what we want to study.
How many sleep genes are there?
We don’t know. Sleep has been studied on an electrophysiological level in mammals, looking at brain activity during waking and sleep, but only recently have we had the tools to investigate genes directly related to sleep on a molecular level. So this is an exciting time for sleep research. I think we have an opportunity to make major progress in our understanding of this behavior in ways that were not possible before.
Are you confident we will learn why our awareness is extinguished when we sleep and reborn when we awaken?
I’m optimistic. In science I feel there’s always an answer. It’s not like trying to write a novel where you might not be certain what the endpoint should be. In science, you know things happen a certain way and that it can be difficult to figure out what makes it go that way. But there are ways to figure these things out. You just need to find them.
Image: John Soares