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Sleepy Science

Science fiction aficionados may be familiar with a trilogy by Nancy Kress, in which she imagines the emergence of genetically modified humans who don’t require sleep. Naturally, given all the extra time, the sleepless quickly surpass others who need to rest each day and evolve into a superior race. The trilogy tells the story of the resulting class, cultural, and technological conflict and is a fascinating read.

Alas, most of us need our nightly sleep and function miserably when sleep deprived. But what if the performance hit from too little sleep could be ameliorated by tweaking brain chemistry?

New research from a collaboration between scientists at the Universities of Pennsylvania, Glasgow, and Toronto identifies a chemical-signaling pathway involved in the memory and learning deficits that result from suboptimal sleeping. (Nature 461 [22 October 2009], 1122–1125) Five hours of sleep deprivation in mice caused impairment of hippocampus function by increasing the activity of the enzyme that degrades cyclic AMP—phosphodiesterase. Treating the critters with a drug (rolipram) that inhibits phosphodiesterase restored hippocampus function.

In the words of the authors, the results “lay the groundwork for further analysis of the functional biochemistry of sleep deprivation.” This may be good news for those of us moderns who never seem to find enough time for proper rest. Don’t start pulling all-nighters yet, though, as five sleepless hours for mice doesn’t quite mimic the chronic effects of weeks or years of too little shut-eye for people.

If sleep fascinates you, see my previous post on the subject. On the other hand, don’t bother if my writing makes you drowsy….

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Periodic Tabloid is an ongoing record of the activities of the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s staff and scholars, whose work tells the story of chemistry over the centuries up to modern times. Stay tuned for behind-the-scenes coverage of our events, exclusive supplemental materials to our publications, analysis of pressing contemporary scientific issues, and much more.