Sleeping Like a Baby

Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Photo (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Everyone knows newborn babies sleep a lot. At least, that’s what the books say–although many sleep-deprived parents might disagree. But why?

Scientists have mounting evidence to support the idea that sleep is necessary for effective learning and memory functions. Other research links lack of sleep to increased risks for different types of mental disease.

Now new research adds additional support for the broader idea that researcher Howard Roffwarg and his colleagues suggested as early as 1966–that infant sleep might help in the structural maturation of circuits in the central nervous system.

The new study shows those circuits aren’t limited to those needed for learning and memory. Moreover, the effects of sleep deprivation could last much longer than we think. Amita Sehgal of the University of Pennsylvania presented the research at the Society for Neuroscience’s 2014 annual meeting.

Sehgal first described how fruit flies are a useful model for sleep research. For starters, they’re practical. Fruit flies are cheap to use and breed in large numbers.

Second, fruit flies have many of the same behaviors that mammals do. And yes, fruit flies actually sleep.

Fruit flies have a simpler anatomy than mammals, however. As a result, it’s easier for researchers to do dissections and identify interactions in their central nervous systems.

And beyond all of this, fruit flies are useful for forward genetics work. They have distinct mutant phenotypes with less redundancy and compensation. Modify the genetic makeup, and the fruit fly usually won’t be able to make up for the change with other mechanisms. With these factors in mind, researchers have developed several specific strains of fruit flies to have particular characteristics.

The research team explored how differences in fruit flies’ neurotransmitter levels affected different aspects of sleep, such as difficulty in arousing them from sleep or “rebound” after a period of sleep deprivation.

Researchers also looked at fruit flies’ behavior. In particular, the team found that particular scent pathways that are necessary for effective courtship behavior did not function properly in mature flies if they had been deprived of sleep after being newly hatched.  Sehgal and her colleagues Matthew Kayser and Zhifeng Yue published the research in the journal Science in April 2014.

Last month, Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) ranted about NIH funding research “to discover whether or not male fruit flies would like to consort with younger female fruit flies.” Sehgal said yes, her group’s research was what Rand was referring to.

But the study wasn’t about sex, she stressed. And while the study was done with fruit flies, their importance as an animal model means that human researchers can learn a lot from the results.

Bottom line: Much more happens in newborn sleep than we realize. And scientists now have measurable evidence to document some of what’s going on.

Of course, much more work remains to be done. Maybe some of today’s newborns will one day add to the growing body of scientific knowledge and understanding about the brain.

And maybe their parents will get to catch up on some sleep.

 

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