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Salts in the brain control our sleep-wake cycle

Brain salt

Insomnia, fun fact those of us who have served or are serving in the military have a much higher incidence of sleep problems. So if you are like me and have ever been prescribed something to help you sleep, you know that there are some unwanted side effects. For instance the time I lost memory of a whole day of interacting with people to the ambien I had taken the night before, not fun. Thankfully Danish researchers found that the level of salts in the brain plays a critical role in whether we are asleep or awake.

This discovery may be of great importance to research on psychiatric diseases such as schizophrenia and convulsive fits from lack of sleep as well as post-anaesthetization confusion. Salts in our brain decide whether we are asleep or awake and for the first time, researchers have shown that the level of salts in our body and brain differ depending on whether we are asleep or awake. Moreover, the new study reveals that by influencing the level of salts, it is possible to control a mouse’s sleep-wake cycle.

“These salts play a much larger and much more decisive role than hitherto imagined. 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 open up for a better future understanding of why some people suffer convulsive fits when staying awake all through the night,” says Professor Maiken Nedergaard from the Center for Basic and Translational Neuroscience at the University of Copenhagen.

The researchers have used mice to test whether injecting salt into the brain enables control of the mouse’s sleep-wake cycle — independently of the so-called neuromodulators. Neuromodulators are compounds such as for example, adrenalin, which plays a decisive role in our waking up every morning.

The study found that adrenalin and other neuromodulators change the level of salts surrounding the neurons and that the salt balance then decides whether the neurons are sensitive to stimulation in the shape of a touch. When we are awake, the salt balance makes neurons highly sensitive to stimulation, as opposed to the salt balance in the brain during sleep, where the level of salts makes it harder to activate the neurons.

“It’s much simpler than previously believed in brain research. 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. This discovery reveals that studying only neurons in order to understand brain activity is not enough. We must include all the supportive cells, especially the so-called astrocytes, which regulate the level of salts in the brain.”

“The brain is more than a group of neurons that function like a computer. The fact that the brain needs 7-8 hours of sleep to function well on a daily basis reveals that there’s much more we need to understand, aside from neurocomputation,” Professor Maiken Nedergaard concludes.

So there might be some help on the horizon for those of us who can’t seem to find sleep when we want it the most. Now if only they could do something about the nightmares…

Ding, F., ODonnell, J., Xu, Q., Kang, N., Goldman, N., & Nedergaard, M. (2016). Changes in the composition of brain interstitial ions control the sleep-wake cycle Science, 352 (6285), 550-555 DOI: 10.1126/science.aad4821

4 responses

  1. It seems odd that such extreme and necessary body processes are controlled by something as simple as salts. All organisms sleep and have circadian rhythms of activity and inactivity, including bacteria, so it would interesting to see if the sleep-wake cycles are controlled in the same way or if they vary somewhat. They can quite obviously vary a bit since some animals are nocturnal, but to see if the process is generally the same would be intriguing. It would also be very interesting to look into the sleep-wake cycles of those animals that hibernate and see how those salt levels vary to the more regular cycles of non-hibernating mammals.


    May 1, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    • I agree, it would be super interesting to see how the sleep-wake cycles are effected by salts in the brain. I hope they do a follow up like that! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts.


      May 2, 2016 at 11:11 am

  2. Marinda

    I think it’s truly mind blowing how much research and time has truly been done to get a firm grasp on our anatomy. That there are so many things going on inside of us that dictate how our body functions. Just like with the salt it seems like such a simple thing, but as you truly consider it and what it has to do with your body it’s quite impressive. You wouldn’t think it had anything to do with our body regulating sleep.I found this article very interesting thank you for sharing.


    May 1, 2016 at 8:20 pm

    • I agree it is incredible. In fact we are still finding new parts of our body, not how it works, just new parts. I think that is crazy, but the more we understand about the body the more we can help people so it’s exciting.


      May 2, 2016 at 11:13 am

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