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Sleep and aging could offer solutions for new insomnia treatments

Researchers gained a better understanding of why lack of sleep affects lifespan

Photo (c) Tero Vesalainen - Getty Images
While many consumers suffer with insomnia, healthcare experts have long struggled to give their patients effective treatment options.

However, researchers from Oxford University recently found that a process in the brain known as oxidative stress affects both sleep and aging. The finding could create new avenues for insomnia treatments.

“It’s no accident that oxygen tanks carry explosion hazard labels: uncontrolled combustion is dangerous,” said researcher Gero Miesenböck. “Animals, including humans, face a similar risk when they use oxygen they breathe to convert food into energy: imperfectly contained combustion leads to ‘oxidative stress’ in the cell. This is believed to be a cause of ageing and culprit for the degenerative diseases that blight our later years. Our new research shows that oxidative stress also activates the neurons that control whether we go to sleep.”

Studying sleep

To see how oxidative stress was affecting the aging process and sleep schedules, the researchers studied the sleep cycles of fruit flies.

The researchers were most interested in evaluating special neurons that control sleep, as previous studies have shown that they behave much like light switches -- turning on and off during sleeping and waking hours.  

According to researcher Dr. Seoho Song, the group wanted to “look for the signals that switch the sleep-control neurons on,” and that they already knew that “a main difference between sleep and waking is how much electrical current flows through two ion channels, called Shaker and Sandman.”

The researchers were trying to discover what caused the neurons to signal to the brain that it was either time to sleep or time to be awake. They soon learned that a molecule -- known as NADPH -- rests under the Shaker ion channel, and its role is to regulate the Shaker channel.

The researchers put this finding to the test and discovered that switching the chemical state of the NADPH molecule was effective in putting the fruit flies right to sleep. The team believes that a pill could be created to prompt this process, which may be effective for treating insomnia and other sleeping disorders.

“Sleep disturbances are very common, and sleeping pills are among the most commonly prescribed drugs” said Miesenböck. “But existing medications carry risks of confusion, forgetfulness, and addiction. Targeting the mechanism we have discovered could avoid some of these side effects.”

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