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How Brain Activity is Linked to Sleep

Brain activity during times of wakefulness affects sleep and sleep quality. While researchers have been aware of this for some time, a clear understanding of how the mechanisms triggering sleep occur has remained largely unknown.

Now, a recent study has uncovered valuable insight into how the changeover from wakefulness to sleep occurs. This discovery potentially paves the way for a host of breakthroughs that could affect everything from sleeping aids to treatments for stroke and brain injury.

Led by James Krueger, a neuroscientist at Washington State University (WSU), the findings were recently published in the Journal of Applied Physiology and represent the most significant discovery of Krueger’s 36-year career focused on sleep research.

The study centered on a hypothesis that the major energy currency of the cell — ATP (adenosinetriphosphate) — is a key trigger for brain activity leading up to sleep. Specifically, researchers followed the method behind how ATP assists in the release of cytokines, the regulatory proteins for sleep.

“We know that brain activity is linked to sleep, but we’ve never known how,” Krueger said. “This gives us a mechanism to link brain activity to sleep. This has not been done before.”

A link between ATP and cytokines was charted, leading researchers to the method by which the brain keeps track of activity during wakefulness and then makes the switch to a state of sleep.

Krueger added that the conclusions line up with previous research conducted at WSU suggesting that sleep is a “local phenomenon, that bits and pieces of the brain sleep” depending on how they’ve been used.

By gaining knowledge of this mechanism, researchers believe the potential for a more detailed understanding of sleep processes is greatly widened with notable possibilities for new and improved therapies to treat the debilitating and dangerous effects associated with sleep disorders.

Sleep disorders affect between 50 and 70 million Americans and currently account for approximately $150 billion to businesses due to lost productivity and accidents linked back to fatigue.  It is also estimated that vehicle accidents caused by fatigued drivers equate to $48 billion a year.

Krueger offered the below practical implications for the discovery of how brain activity and ATP affect sleep:

  • The study provides a new set of targets for potential medications. Drugs designed to interact with the receptors ATP binds to may prove useful as sleeping pills.
  • Sleep disorders like insomnia can be viewed as being caused by some parts of the brain being awake while other parts are asleep, giving rise to new therapies.
  • ATP-related blood flow observed in brain-imaging studies can be linked to activity and sleep.
  • Researchers can develop strategies by which specific brain cell circuits are oriented to specific tasks, slowing fatigue by allowing the used parts of the brain to sleep while one goes about other business. It may also clear the way for stroke victims to put undamaged regions of their brains to better use.
  • Brain cells cultured outside the body can be used to study brain cell network oscillations between sleep-like and wake-like states, speeding the progress of brain studies.

Source: Washington State University

How Brain Activity is Linked to Sleep

Selena Chavis

APA Reference
Chavis, S. (2018). How Brain Activity is Linked to Sleep. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 17 Sep 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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