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Brain Activity: Interesting Concepts Related to Sleeping

Brain Work

In this article, we will talk about some interesting concepts connected to sleeping that you may not even notice in your real life, or do not realize how they happen. This knowledge may help you to study more effectively and improve your study speed.

Why Do We Fall Asleep When We Are Bored?

A meeting is too long and boring, so your eyes close. The cause of this phenomenon has just been elucidated. In our brain, the neurons of motivation and those of sleep are connected. Why do we easily defeat fatigue late at night when we do our favorite activities, and conversely, why do we fall asleep watching an uninteresting film or listening to a boring lecture? This question leads to studying how our level of motivation influences our sleep.

Recent work by researchers from Tsukuba University in Japan and Fudan University in China provides new insights in this regard. Their experiments, carried out on mice, reveal that neurons of a brain center involved in the perception of pleasure and motivation can control the process of falling asleep!

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What Influences Our Sleep?

Sleep is regulated by two brain systems: the first, under the control of our internal clock located in the hypothalamus, defines the time of day and night conducive to sleep and wakefulness. The second integrates a factor called “sleep pressure,” or more simply a need for sleep that accumulates during the waking phases and that disappears while sleeping.

"Sleep Pressure"

Biologically, the need to sleep is characterized by the accumulation in the brain of the so-called hypnogenic substances, the best studied of which is adenosine. This molecule, which accumulates naturally in our brain throughout the day, gradually stimulates the neurons responsible for triggering sleep and inhibits those that tend to keep us awake.

Boring Activity and Its Influence

Bored Person

But how does a pleasant activity like an interesting film, or on the contrary, a boring occupation like attending a meeting where nothing happens, affects our states of vigilance? This is what the two-system model has not explained so far. Hence the interest of the new results published in the journal Nature Communications, which suggest that cognitive and emotional factors are able to regulate our propensity to fall asleep.

Dopamine Blocks Neurons That Make You Sleep

It is adenosine, according to the researchers, which could be a connection between boredom and sleep. Neurobiologists have used techniques of chemogenetics and optogenetics on mice to selectively stimulate or inhibit, in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, neurons with adenosine receptors, specifically "A2 type receivers." By activating these neurons, they made the mice fall asleep faster, as well as triggered the appearance of slow waves on their electroencephalogram – the characteristic of a deep sleep. Inversely, the inhibition of these same neurons greatly reduces the duration of sleep.

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What Is the Result?

It, therefore, seems that pleasant activities inhibit the activity of these A2 receptor neurons. By what mechanism does this happen? In general, gratifying situations result in the activation of a deep zone of the brain called the ventral tegmental area, which projects neuronal connections to the nucleus accumbens. In case of pleasure, these connections release dopamine, a molecule that reduces the activity of A2 receptor neurons.

Process of Experiment

Confirming this notion, the researchers observed that motivational stimulus, such as putting into the cage some toys or chocolates, attenuated the activity of these A2 receptor neurons and reduced the amount of sleep. On the other hand, an environment that can be considered "boring" for mice increased the activity of these neurons, as well as the sleep time.

New Sleep Neurons?

The A2 receptor neurons of the nucleus accumbens, thus, cause sleep when they are activated, and wakefulness when they are inhibited. For this, they would trigger reactions in various brain areas, starting with a neighboring area called ventral pallidum. The neurons of this area would, in turn, cause the activation of areas of the cerebral cortex, located at the front of the brain, necessary to maintain vigilance.

Influence of Coffee

Student Drinking Coffee

There should be at least three steps between pleasure and wakefulness – or from boredom to sleep. If you tend to fall asleep during a boring lecture, remember that there is another way to prevent falling asleep: coffee. A previous study had shown that the stimulating effect of caffeine resulted in blockade of A2 adenosine receptors. That is why the symposiums provide plenty of coffee breaks where people suddenly seem to wake up. In reality, they let the adenosine receptors resist as long as possible the pressure of sleep.

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What Does Your Brain Do During the Night?

An American study shows that sleep has a true "self-purifying" effect on the central nervous system. We can almost look at the brain as at the muscle: a muscle that after having worked for a long time must have rest before it can be used again. In this case, sleeping is equivalent to rest because during sleep the brain eliminates its own toxins.

Sleep or Death

Despite decades of effort, one of the greatest mysteries of biology is why sleep is restorative, and, conversely, why lack of sleep influences the functioning of the brain. Sleep deprivation reduces learning performance, impairs performance in cognitive tests, reduces reaction time, etc. In the most extreme cases, continued sleep deprivation kills rodents and flies within a few days or weeks. For humans, a condition such as "fatal familial insomnia" is a condition of progressive worsening of insomnia that leads to dementia and death in a few months or years.

Why Is It Restorative?

To understand the primary reasons for this phenomenon, the researchers seek to decipher the molecular processes of brain cells. And they come to the conclusion that sleep allows the brain to "clean up" garbage accumulated during waking phases because of continued neuronal activity. The elimination of toxins demonstrates the recuperative function of sleep, so everyone can feel the effects of waking up from a good night's sleep. Moreover, this discovery has great importance because of the involvement of these toxins in the pathological processes of neuron degeneration (as in the case of Alzheimer's disease).

"Glymphatic" System

The brain here uses a system called "glymphatic," in reference to the lymphatic system which also performs a "detoxifying" function throughout the body with the exception of the brain. The researchers were able to observe for the first time this self-purifying system thanks to a new imaging technology used on mice. The glymphatic system allows the elimination of waste via the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), the liquid in which the brain is immersed.

Important Results

It is now possible to better understand what happens during sleep, a period that roughly corresponds – we tend to forget– to the third of our life. It is as if at night the brain opens molecular and cellular valves, which at the same time increase the evacuation rate.

American researchers have observed this by injecting a dye into the CSF of the mice while following the flow through their brains and simultaneously monitoring their electrical brain activity. However, when the mice are asleep (or unconscious), the CSF flows faster than when they are awake. With the help of electrodes, the researchers were able to make measurements: the spaces between brain cells widen up to 60% during sleep.

The Metaphor of Garbage Collectors

Garbage Collectors

Researchers see in this discovery a confirmation of the expression "brain takes out the trash while we sleep." In fact, after reading the results of this experiment, we can, after a good night's sleep, look differently at the garbage collectors which do everything in the morning to make the city clean. It can be said that a prolonged strike of garbage collectors is equal to Alzheimer's disease.

Insomnia: How Does It Influence Health?

Sleep disorders are a real health problem, both in terms of their frequency and their human, social and economic repercussions. According to surveys, about one of three people suffer from some form of insomnia, and one of ten report that their sleep problems have a daytime impact on their functioning. In addition, insomnia is steadily increasing in most Western countries, as reflected in the increasing intake of sleeping pills.

Symptoms of Insomnia

The insomniac person reports disturbances of the sleep and repercussions during the day. The complaints about sleep during the night are usually difficulties with falling asleep and staying asleep, one or more waking episodes during the night, an early morning awakening, a non-restorative or poor quality of sleep.

The common repercussions of insomnia during the day are tiredness, decreased attention, concentration or memory skills, disruptions in social, professional or school life (bad results at the university or at work), an unstable mood, irritability, daytime sleepiness, a decrease in motivation and energy, a tendency to making mistakes, accidents during work or while driving, headaches, concerns about sleep.

On the contrary, "short sleeper" (a person who needs less than six hours of sleep a night) will have a short sleep, sometimes feel some difficulties with falling asleep, but will have none of the daytime repercussions mentioned above.

Causes of Insomnia


There are indeed several causes and types of insomnia. To simplify, we can distinguish:

1) Insomnia that is caused by inappropriate schedule (a person goes to bed too early or too late repeatedly), the consumption of stimulating drinks (coffee, black tea, energy drinks, etc.) or inappropriate activities (lack of activity, intense physical activity or intellectual effort shortly before bedtime).

2) Insomnia of adjustment (this is occasional, transient insomnia, lasting from a few days to three months, linked to new events or situations that cause stress. In some cases, this insomnia can, nevertheless, persist in the long term).

Insomnia Without Comorbidity

Chronic insomnia, without comorbidity (without associated disease), is also called a primary insomnia. There are two types of such insomnia: 1) psychophysiological insomnia (sleeping creates for some people a real anxiety to go to bed for fear of not being able to sleep. A whole series of mechanisms and bad habits (going to bed early to try to "catch up" with sleep, taking naps to "recover" from a bad night, etc.) get under way and maintain the vicious circle of insomnia), 2) idiopathic insomnia (it is a kind of "constitutional" insomnia. It starts early in childhood and lasts through time. People who suffer from this type of insomnia are thought to have a genetic predisposition to insomnia).

Chronic Insomnia with Comorbidity, or Secondary Insomnia

This type of insomnia can be related to a mental illness such as depressive states, bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders, panic attacks, compulsive disorders, etc. Insomnia is then one of the symptoms of psychiatric illness. It can also be related to a physical illness such as painful pathology, hyperthyroidism, epilepsy, heart disease, respiratory disorder, gastroesophageal reflux disease, degenerative neuropathy, etc., which may interfere with normal sleep.

Influence of Medicines

Insomnia can also be related to taking drugs or sleep-disrupting substances. This type of insomnia is related to taking psychostimulants (caffeine, nicotine, cocaine, amphetamines, etc.), alcohol, certain drugs (cortisone, dopamine, amphetamine derivatives, etc.) or food. This type of insomnia may even be the result of the chronic consumption of sleeping pills.

Risk Factors

Some insomnias are associated with psychological disorders (anxiety disorder, depression), certain physical diseases (chronic pain syndromes, neurological diseases, heart diseases, respiratory diseases), the use of psychoactive substances (cocaine, amphetamines, caffeine) or certain substances (alcohol, sleeping pills).In primary insomnia, there is probably a genetic vulnerability involved. Bad habits can also cause chronic insomnia.

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