October 7, 2021 —  Solving the mystery of sleep by studying brain mechanisms that regulate sleep and waking was research presented on October 5, 2021 by Gero Miesenböck, Waynflete Professor of Physiology at the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behavior, Oxford, England at the virtual 25th Biennial World Congress of Neurology

“Sleep is a universal behavior whose function and fundamental biology is largely unknown. As we advance toward solving the mystery of sleep, we will be able to treat and cure more diseases,” said Prof. Miesenböck. 

Miesenböck is renowned for his research developing and using optogenetics, a technology that makes neurons responsive to light. Optogenetics has been instrumental in studies on sleep-inducing nerve cells in fruit flies that represent the output of a process called the sleep homeostat. 

The sleep homeostat listens to the—still enigmatic—signals generated inside the brain or body that accumulate during waking, signalling the need to sleep. Miesenböck’s research hopes to improve knowledge about why sleep is an essential function by understanding these signals, how they are detected and how they induce sleep. 

The electrical activity of the sleep-inducing nerve cells of fruit flies reflects the past 12 to 24 hours of their sleep history. The cells tend to be very electrically excitable when the flies need sleep and quiet when they are well rested. The switch that changes the activity of these neurons is oxidative stress, the accumulation of a particular class of short-lived, highly reactive molecules called oxygen-free radicals that are generated when an individual burns energy inefficiently. Studies in the early 80s showed that chronic sleep deprivation shortens lifespan, accelerates aging and leads to a host of degenerative diseases. Oxidative stress is thought to be one of the prime drivers of the aging process. In this way, sleep and aging may be connected through the mechanisms of energy metabolism—the process of generating energy by burning nutrients—and oxidative stress. 

“If I had to summarize my presentation in a single catchphrase, I'd say that sleep is an antioxidant,” said Miesenböck. His research found that one particular ion channel in the sleep-inducing cells of fruit flies is crucial for turning sleep need into sleep. Determining how this mechanism works may lead to new therapies for sleep problems.

Sleep disturbances are one of the most common medical problems. It is thought that in Westernized societies, almost half the population has intermittent problems with sleep and 10 percent experience chronic sleep disruptions. Lack of sleep is also the most common cause of traffic accidents and is associated with insulin resistance, obesity, neurodegenerative diseases, mood disorders as well as a host of other diseases and conditions. 


About the World Congress of Neurology

The World Federation of Neurology’s World Congress of Neurology brings together leading neuroscientists and public health experts to turn research into action and emphasize the importance of brain health across the globe. The 25th Biennial conference occurred virtually from October 3 to 7, 2021, and was organized in association with the Italian Society of Neurology (SIN)

About the World Federation of Neurology

The World Federation of Neurology represents 122 member neurological societies around the globe to foster quality neurology and brain health worldwide by promoting neurological education and training with an emphasis on under-resourced areas of the world. WFN supports the spread of research and clinical information in the pursuit of improvements in the field of neurology. With support from member organizations around the globe, WFN unites the world to allow patients greater access to brain health. For more information, please visit the WCN 2021 website at www.wfneurology.org, find our live stream press conferences on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/wfneurology/, on Twitter at https://twitter.com/wfneurology or by searching using the tag #WCN2021.


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