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article imageWorms offer insight into sleep disorders

By Tim Sandle     Mar 10, 2016 in Science
Problems sleeping have been linked with the way neurons in the brain operate (or fire). This is based on a study of roundworms and their hunt for food, according to a new biological study.
The new study is a theoretical one, because what happens in roundworms doesn’t necessarily mean the same things will happen in people. Nonetheless, the research is regarded to be of sufficient importance to have been backed by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
The microscopic roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans is a good model for understanding how cells divide, develop, and take on specialized tasks in higher life forms. The worm is transparent, allowing its nervous system to be studied and certain functions can be visualized using dyes.
The research has revealed that as organisms sleep, neurons fire randomly in between brief, alternating states of wakefulness and sleep. This type of fragmentation is, from studies on people, associated with sleep disorders.
By studying the worms and altering different biological and environmental states, researchers have concluded the variation in neuron activity linked with sleep disorders has both a genetic and physiological connection.
By studying the way the worms searched for food, and using lasers to knock out neurons associated with different movements and activity, the researchers found that the neurons that fire when we wake up and close down when we go to sleep are random, just like the movement of a worm in search of food. The researchers think the same processes occur in people; however, when sleep disorders occur, this is due to a ‘fragmentation’ in this pattern of certain neurons switching on and off.
This has provided the basis of understanding neuron fragmentation and these patterns have been carried over to studies on rats and mice. It is hoped that by unlocking the pattern of these seemingly random fragmentation, an imporved treatment for sleep disorders can be found.
The study was carried out at the University of Oregon, led by a researcher called Dr. Shawn Lockery. The research is published in the journal eLife, in a paper called “A stochastic neuronal model predicts random search behaviors at multiple spatial scales in C. elegans.”
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