Chapter 10. Biological Rhythms and Sleep
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Ian Sample Science editor For Jules Verne it was the friend who keeps us waiting. For Edgar Allan Poe so many little slices of death. But though the reason we spend a third of our lives asleep has so far resisted scientific explanation, research into the impact of sleepless nights on brain function has shed fresh light on the mystery - and also offered intriguing clues to potential treatments for depression. In a study published on Tuesday, researchers show for the first time that sleep resets the steady build-up of connectivity in the human brain which takes place in our waking hours. The process appears to be crucial for our brains to remember and learn so we can adapt to the world around us. The loss of a single night’s sleep was enough to block the brain’s natural reset mechanism, the scientists found. Deprived of rest, the brain’s neurons seemingly became over-connected and so muddled with electrical activity that new memories could not be properly laid down. Lack of sleep alters brain chemicals to bring on cannabis-style 'munchies' But Christoph Nissen, a psychiatrist who led the study at the University of Freiburg, is also excited about the potential for helping people with mental health disorders. One radical treatment for major depression is therapeutic sleep deprivation, which Nissen believes works through changing the patient’s brain connectivity. The new research offers a deeper understanding of the phenomenon which could be adapted to produce more practical treatments. © 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited
by Laura Sanders When someone uses the phrase “sleeping like a baby,” it’s obvious that they don’t really know how babies sleep. Many babies, especially newborns, are lousy sleepers, waking up every few hours to rustle around, cry and eat. For creatures who sleep up to 18 hours per 24-hour period, newborns are exhausting. That means that bone-tired parents are often desperate to get their babies to sleep so they can rest too. A study published in the September Pediatrics captured this nightly struggle in the homes of 162 Pennsylvanian families. And the results revealed something disturbing: Despite knowing that they were being videotaped, many parents didn’t put their babies into a safe sleeping spot. The risk of sleep-related infant deaths, including those caused by strangulation or sudden infant death syndrome, goes up when babies are put in unsafe sleeping positions or near suffocation hazards. Babies should be on their back on a firm mattress free of any objects. But that wasn’t the case for the majority of babies in the study, says Ian Paul, a pediatrician at Penn State. As a parent to three, Paul is sympathetic to the difficulties of soothing babies to sleep. “The first few months are really exhausting,” he says. But as a pediatrician, he also sees the risks of ignoring safe sleep guidelines. “Parents need to realize that these risks are real and might happen to them.” The videos taken for the study revealed that at 1 month of age, nearly all of the babies were put onto a sleep surface that had a loose or ill-advised item. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016
By Roni Caryn Rabin We’ve all heard about the power of positive thinking. But will it help me sleep? My problem isn’t falling asleep – it’s staying asleep. This particular form of torture has been dubbed “sleep-maintenance” insomnia. Call me a high-functioning sufferer: I’m usually O.K. once I’ve had my morning coffee. But I worry about the long-term health ramifications of losing sleep. Now several medical organizations have endorsed a treatment known as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia or C.B.T.-I. In May the American College of Physicians advised its members that C.B.T.-I. was the first treatment they should offer patients with insomnia. I wanted to try it, but there is a shortage of trained therapists with expertise in C.B.T.-I. I didn’t want to wait for an appointment; I just wanted to solve the problem. So I decided to try an online sleep program. Convincing data that internet-based programs are effective is piling up, and a recent review of clinical trials reported that insomniacs improved their sleep as much after online C.B.T.-I. programs as they did after face-to-face C.B.T.-I. counseling. Internet programs are likely to be cheaper than most therapists, too. I downloaded a five-week course called Conquering Insomnia for $40. Another online C.B.T. program called SHUTi charges $135 for 16 weeks of access to a program, which includes a series of six sessions and follow-up for 10 weeks. Both programs provide individualized feedback on your weekly sleep logs. The developers of these programs say they want them to be accessible to as many people as possible. One in 10 people suffer from insomnia. “The number of clinicians nationally who know how to do C.B.T. for insomnia is a couple of thousand. We need 100,000,” said Dr. Gregg Jacobs, a sleep medicine specialist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who developed the Conquering Insomnia program. “There are tens of millions of people out there who have insomnia.” © 2016 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 22591 - Posted: 08.24.2016
By Andrea Anderson When we bed down in a new locale, our sleep often suffers. A recent study finds that this so-called first-night effect may be the result of partial wakefulness in one side of the brain—as if the brain is keeping watch. Researchers at Brown University and the Georgia Institute of Technology used neuroimaging and a brain wave–tracking approach called polysomnography to record activity in four brain networks in 11 individuals as they slept on two nights about a week apart. The subjects nodded off at their normal bedtimes, and their brain was scanned for about two hours—the length of a sleep cycle. As participants slept, right hemisphere regions showed consistent slow-wave activity regardless of the night. Yet average slow-wave activity was shallower in their left hemisphere during the first night—an asymmetry that was enhanced in those who took longer to fall asleep. The results, published in May in Current Biology, suggest systems in one side of the brain remain active as people venture into unfamiliar sleep situations—an apparent survival strategy reminiscent of the unihemispheric sleep reported in certain animals. Because the results represent just one sleep cycle, however, it is unclear whether the left side of the brain is always tasked with maintaining attentiveness, explains the study's senior author Yuka Sasaki, a cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences researcher at Brown. It is possible the right hemisphere takes over guard dog duties at some point in the night. © 2016 Scientific American
Link ID: 22580 - Posted: 08.22.2016
By Melinda Wenner Moyer The science of sleep is woefully incomplete, not least because research on the topic has long ignored half of the population. For decades, sleep studies mostly enrolled men. Now, as sleep researchers are making a more concerted effort to study women, they are uncovering important differences between the sexes. Hormones are a major factor. Estrogen, progesterone and testosterone can influence the chemical systems in the brain that regulate sleep and arousal. Moreover, recent studies indicate that during times of hormonal change—such as puberty, pregnancy and menopause—women are at an increased risk for sleep disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome and insomnia. Women also tend to report that they have more trouble sleeping before and during their menstrual periods. And when women do sleep poorly, they may have a harder time focusing than sleep-deprived men do. In one recent study, researchers shifted the sleep-wake cycles of 16 men and 18 women for 10 days. Volunteers were put on a 28-hour daily cycle involving nearly 19 hours of awake time followed by a little more than nine hours of sleep. During the sleep-shifted period, the women in the group performed much less accurately than the men on cognitive tests. The findings, published in April of this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, may help explain why women are more likely than men to get injured working graveyard shifts. In addition, a study conducted in 2015 in teenagers reported that weekday sleep deprivation affects cognitive ability more in girls than in boys. © 2016 Scientific American
By Karen Weintraub There’s been lots of coverage lately about meeting exercise recommendations by completing small chunks of exercise throughout the day rather than one, continuous session. Does the same hold true for meeting sleep recommendations? No. Unfortunately, sleep does not work that way. Substituting periodic naps for one consolidated night of sleep creates severe sleep deprivation, said Dr. Daniel Buysse, a sleep expert and professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. He and his colleagues once did an experiment in which volunteers agreed to alternate 30 minutes of sleep with 60 minutes of wakefulness for two and a half days straight. They ended up sleep deprived, he said, because sound sleep is not equally likely at all times of day. People have a better chance of falling quickly into deep, restful sleep at night than midday, even if they feel as though they could fall asleep at any time. “Our biological clocks do not allow us to sleep as well during the day as at night,” he said. “All sleep is not necessarily equal.” That’s why night workers get less sleep on average than people who work other shifts – and suffer health consequences as a result, he said. But it’s always a good idea to make up for lost sleep, regardless of the time of day, said Dr. Ruth Benca, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. People used to think that it was better to pull an all-nighter than to break it up with a short nap, but that isn’t true, she said. On the other hand, it may be helpful, she said, to take an afternoon nap to compensate for a short night of sleep, bringing a six-and-a-half hour night up to seven, for instance. “If you have to stay awake for a prolonged period, you can mitigate that a little bit by taking some naps, but you can’t live your life like that,” Dr. Benca said. “Any sleep is better than no sleep, and more sleep is better than less sleep.” © 2016 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 22567 - Posted: 08.18.2016
By Sunpreet Singh Every day people are exposed to hours of artificial light from a variety of sources – computers, video games, office lights and, for some, 24-hour lighting in hospitals and nursing homes. Now new research in animals shows that excessive exposure to “light pollution” may be worse for health than previously known, taking a toll on muscle and bone strength. Researchers at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands tracked the health of rats exposed to six months of continuous light compared to a control group of rats living under normal light-dark conditions — 12 hours of light, followed by 12 hours of dark. During the study, the rats exposed to continuous light had less muscle strength and developed signs of early-stage osteoporosis. They also got fatter and had higher blood glucose levels. Several markers of immune system health also worsened, according to the report published in the medical journal Current Biology. While earlier research has suggested excessive light exposure could affect cognition, the new research was surprising in that it showed a pronounced effect on muscles and bones. While it’s not clear why constant light exposure took a toll on the motor functions of the animals, it is known that light and dark cues influence a body’s circadian rhythms, which regulate many of the body’s physiological processes. “The study is the first of its kind to show markers of negatively-affected muscle fibers, skeletal systems and motor performances due to the disruption of circadian clocks, remarkably in only a few months,” said Chris Colwell, a psychiatry professor and sleep specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not part of the study. “They found that not only did motor performance go down on tests, but the muscles themselves just atrophied, and mice physically became weaker under just two months under these conditions.” © 2016 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Biological Rhythms
Link ID: 22556 - Posted: 08.13.2016
Rachel Ehrenberg Pulling consecutive all-nighters makes some brain areas groggier than others. Regions involved with problem solving and concentration become especially sluggish when sleep-deprived, a new study using brain scans reveals. Other areas keep ticking along, appearing to be less affected by a mounting sleep debt. The results might lead to a better understanding of the rhythmic nature of symptoms in certain psychiatric or neurodegenerative disorders, says study coauthor Derk-Jan Dijk. People with dementia, for instance, can be afflicted with “sundowning,” which worsens their symptoms at the end of the day. More broadly, the findings, published August 12 in Science, document the brain’s response to too little shut-eye. “We’ve shown what shift workers already know,” says Dijk, of the University of Surrey in England. “Being awake at 6 a.m. after a night of no sleep, it isn’t easy. But what wasn’t known was the remarkably different response of these brain areas.” The research reveals the differing effects of the two major factors that influence when you conk out: the body’s roughly 24-hour circadian clock, which helps keep you awake in the daytime and put you to sleep when it’s dark, and the body’s drive to sleep, which steadily increases the longer you’re awake. Dijk and collaborators at the University of Liege in Belgium assessed the cognitive function of 33 young adults who went without sleep for 42 hours. Over the course of this sleepless period, the participants performed some simple tasks testing reaction time and memory. The sleepy subjects also underwent 12 brain scans during their ordeal and another scan after 12 hours of recovery sleep. Throughout the study, the researchers also measured participants’ levels of the sleep hormone melatonin, which served as a way to track the hands on their master circadian clocks. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016
Link ID: 22548 - Posted: 08.12.2016
By Alice Klein Rise and shine! Neuronal switches have been discovered that can suddenly rouse flies from slumber – or send them into a doze. There are several parallels between sleep in flies and mammals, making fruit flies a good choice for investigating how we sleep. One way to do this is to use optogenetics to activate specific neurons to see what they do. This works by using light to turn on cells genetically modified to respond to certain wavelengths. Gero Miesenböck at the University of Oxford and his team have discovered how to wake flies up. Using light as the trigger the team stimulated neurons that release a molecule called dopamine. The dopamine then switched off sleep-promoting neurons in what’s called the dorsal fan-shaped body, waking the flies. Meanwhile, Fang Guo at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, and his team have found that activating neurons that form part of a fly’s internal clock will send it to sleep. When stimulated, these neurons released glutamate, which turned off activity-promoting neurons in the master pacemaker area of the brain. While human and fly brains are obviously very different in structure, being asleep or awake are similar states regardless of the kind of brain an animal has, says Bruno van Swinderen at the University of Queensland, Australia. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Sarah Kaplan Sleep just doesn't make sense. "Think about it," said Gero Miesenböck, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford. "We do it. Every animal with a brain does it. But obviously it has considerable risks." Sleeping animals are incredibly vulnerable to attacks, with no obvious benefit to make up for it — at best, they waste precious hours that could be used finding food or seducing a mate; at worst, they could get eaten. "If evolution had managed to invent an animal that doesn’t need to sleep ... the selective advantage for it would be immense," Miesenböck said. "The fact that no such animal exists indicates that sleep is really vital, but we don't know why." But Miesenböck is part of team of sleep researchers who believe they are inching closer to to an answer. In a paper published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, they describe a cluster of two dozen brain cells in fruit flies that operate as a homeostatic sleep switch, turning on when the body needs rest and off again when it's time to wake up. "It's like a thermostat," Miesenböck said of the switch, "But instead of responding to temperature it responds to something else." If he and his colleagues could find out what that "something" is, "we might have the answer to the mystery of sleep."
By Alice Klein The debate has finally been put to bed. Wearable brainwave recorders confirm that birds do indeed sleep while flying, but only for brief periods and usually with one half of their brain. We know several bird species can travel vast distances non-stop, prompting speculation that they must nap mid-flight. Great frigatebirds, for example, can fly continuously for up to two months. On the other hand, the male sandpiper, for one, can largely forgo sleep during the breeding season, hinting that it may also be possible for birds to stay awake during prolonged trips. To settle this question, Niels Rattenborg at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Seewiesen, Germany, and his colleagues fitted small brain activity monitors and movement trackers to 14 great frigatebirds. During long flights, the birds slept for an average of 41 minutes per day, in short episodes of about 12 seconds each. By contrast, they slept for more than 12 hours per day on land. Frigatebirds in flight tend to use one hemisphere at a time to sleep, as do ducks and dolphins, but sometimes they used both. “Some people thought that all their sleep would have to be unihemispheric otherwise they would drop from the sky,” says Rattenborg. “But that’s not the case – they can sleep with both hemispheres and they just continue soaring.” Sleep typically took place as the birds were circling in rising air currents, when they did not need to flap their wings. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Aaron E. Carroll I remember thinking, after my pregnant wife’s water broke, minutes after I went to bed, anguishing really, over one thought as we drove to the hospital: “I’m never going to be well rested again.” If there’s one things all new parents wish for, it’s a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, infants sometimes make that impossible. They wake up repeatedly, needing to be fed, changed and comforted. Eventually, they reach an age when they should sleep through the night. Some don’t, though. What to do with them continues to be a topic of a heated debate in parenting circles. One camp believes that babies should be left to cry it out. These people place babies in their cribs at a certain time, after a certain routine, and don’t interfere until the next morning. No matter how much the babies scream or cry, parents ignore them. After all, if babies learn that tantrums lead to the appearance of a loved one, they will continue that behavior in the future. The official name for this intervention is “Extinction.” The downside, of course, is that it’s unbelievably stressful for parents. Many can’t do it. And not holding fast to the plan can make everything worse. Responding to an infant’s crying after an extended period of time makes the behavior harder to extinguish. To a baby, it’s like a slot machine that hits just as you’re ready to walk away; it makes you want to play more. A modification of this strategy is known as “Graduated Extinction.” Parents allow their infant to cry it out for a longer period each night, until infants eventually put themselves to sleep. On the first night, for instance, parents might commit to not entering the baby’s room for five minutes. The next night, 10 minutes. Then 15, and so on. Or, they could increase the increments on progressive checks each night. When they do go in the room, it’s only to check and make sure the baby is O.K. – no picking up or comforting. This isn’t meant to be a reward for crying, but to allow parents to be assured that nothing is wrong. © 2016 The New York Times Company
By Richard Kemeny Sleep is essential for memory. Mounting evidence continues to support the notion that the nocturnal brain replays, stabilizes, reorganizes, and strengthens memories while the body is at rest. Recently, one particular facet of this process has piqued the interest of a growing group of neuroscientists: sleep spindles. For years these brief bursts of brain activity have been largely ignored. Now it seems that examining these neuronal pulses could help researchers better understand—perhaps even treat—cognitive impairments. Sleep spindles are a defining characteristic of stage 2 non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. These electrical bursts between 10-16 Hz last only around a second, and are known to occur in the human brain thousands of times per night. Generated by a thin net of neurons enveloping the thalamus, spindles appear across several regions of the brain, and are thought to perform various functions, including maintaining sleep in the face of disturbances in the environment. It appears they are also a fundamental part of the process by which the human brain consolidates memories during sleep. A memory formed during the day is stored temporarily in the hippocampus, before being spontaneously replayed during the night. Information about the memory is distributed out and integrated into the neocortex through an orchestra of slow-waves, spindles, and rapid hippocampal ripples. Spindles, it seems, could be a guiding force—providing the plasticity and coordination needed for this delicate, interregional transfer of information. © 1986-2016 The Scientist
By Emma Bryce In 1999, neuroscientist Gero Miesenböck dreamed of using light to expose the brain's inner workings. Two years later, he invented optogenetics, a technique that fulfils this goal: by genetically engineering cells to contain proteins that make them light-responsive, Miesenböck found he could shine light at the brain and trigger electrical activity in those cells. This technique gave scientists the tools to activate and control specific cell populations in the brain, for the first time. For example, Miesenböck, who directs the Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour at the University of Oxford, first used optogenetics to activate courtship responses in fruit flies, and even make headless flies take flight - groundbreaking experiments that allowed him to examine, in unprecedented detail, how neurons drive behaviour. Gero Miesenböck: There was almost a "eureka" moment. As is often the case, you tend to have your best ideas when you're not trying to have them: suddenly I had this idea - which I must have been incubating for a long time, because I was thinking about manipulating neurons in the brain genetically to emit light so I could visualise their activity. Suddenly I thought, "What if we just turn the thing upside down, and instead of reading activity, write activity using light and genetics?" That was the real breakthrough idea, and then of course came the big challenge of having to make it work. Brains are composed of many different kinds of nerve cells, and they are genetically distinct from one another. To deconstruct how the brain works we need to pinpoint the roles these individual classes of cells play in processing information. Optogenetics uses the genetic signatures that define individual cell types to address them selectively in the intact brain - that's the "genetics" component. The "opto" component is to use these genetic signatures to place light-sensitive molecules that are encoded in DNA within these cells.
Link ID: 22469 - Posted: 07.23.2016
You drift off to dreamland just fine but then something, a noise, a partner's tossing and turning, jars you awake. Now your mind races with an ever expanding to-do list of worries that you can't shut off. When the alarm buzzes, you start the day feeling grouchy and slightly dazed. Nearly six in 10 Canadians say they wake up feeling tired. About 40 per cent of Canadians will exhaust themselves with a sleep disorder at some point in their lifetime, studies suggest. It's common for people to wake up in the middle of the night. What's important is not to let it snowball, sleep specialists say. Our sleep cycles include brief periods of wakefulness but deep sleep makes us forget about these awakenings. "It's normal to have one or two a night," said Dr. Brian Murray, a sleep neurologist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and a professor at the University of Toronto. "It's when it's multiple that I worry." Sleep experts say if someone wakes up multiple times a night, it's a red flag. Chronic sleep problems are linked to heart disease, high blood pressure and some cancers. It can also affect hormone levels, which increases the risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes, sleep specialists say. Julie Snyder of Toronto said she has stretches of days or weeks when she'll consistently wake up at 1:15 a.m., and again at 4 a.m. The broken sleep leaves her feeling short on patience. ©2016 CBC/Radio-Canada.
Link ID: 22463 - Posted: 07.21.2016
Rachel Ehrenberg The brain doesn’t really go out like a light when anesthesia kicks in. Nor does neural activity gradually dim, a new study in monkeys reveals. Rather, intermittent flickers of brain activity appear as the effects of an anesthetic take hold. Some synchronized networks of brain activity fall out of step as the monkeys gradually drift from wakefulness, the study showed. But those networks resynchronized when deep unconsciousness set in, researchers reported in the July 20 Journal of Neuroscience. That the two networks behave so differently during the drifting-off stage is surprising, says study coauthor Yumiko Ishizawa of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. It isn’t clear what exactly is going on, she says, except that the anesthetic’s effects are a lot more complex than previously thought. Most studies examining the how anesthesia works useelectroencephalograms, or EEGs, which record brain activity using electrodes on the scalp. The new study offers unprecedented surveillance by eavesdropping via electrodes implanted inside macaque monkeys’ brains. This new view provides clues to how the brain loses and gains consciousness. “It’s a very detailed description of something we know very little about,” says cognitive neuroscientist Tristan Bekinschtein of the University of Cambridge, who was not involved with the work. Although the study is elegant, it isn’t clear what to make of the findings, he says. “These are early days.” |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016.
Link ID: 22457 - Posted: 07.20.2016
By JOANNA KLEIN Jet lag may be the worst part of traveling. And it hits many people harder traveling east than west. Why they feel this way is unclear. But scientists recently developed a model that mimics special time-keeping cells in the body and offers a mathematical explanation for why traveling from west to east feels so much worse. It also offers insights on recovering from jet lag. Deep inside the brain, in a region called the hypothalamus (right above where our optic nerves cross) the internal clock is ticking. And approximately every 24 hours, 20,000 special pacemaker cells that inhabit this area, known as the superchiasmatic nucleus, synchronize, signaling to the rest of the body whether it’s night or day. These cells know which signal to send because they receive light input from our environments — bright says wake, dark says sleep. But when you travel across multiple time zones, like flying from New York to Moscow, those little pacemaker cells that thought they knew the routine scramble around confused before they can put on their show. The whole body feels groggy because it’s looking for the time and can’t find it. The result: jet lag. Most of our internal clocks are a little bit slow, and in the absence of consistent light cues — like when you travel across time zones — the pacemaker cells in your body want to have a longer day, said Michelle Girvan, a physicist at the University of Maryland who worked on the model published in the journal Chaos on Tuesday. “This is all because the body’s internal clock has a natural period of slightly longer than 24 hours, which means that it has an easier time traveling west and lengthening the day than traveling east and shortening the day,” Dr. Girvan said. © 2016 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Biological Rhythms
Link ID: 22446 - Posted: 07.16.2016
Rebecca Boyle Eliane Lucassen works the night shift at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands, beginning her day at 6 p.m. Yet her own research has shown that this schedule might cause her health problems. “It’s funny,” the medical resident says. “Here I am, spreading around that it’s actually unhealthy. But it needs to be done.” Lucassen and Johanna Meijer, a neuroscientist at Leiden, report today in Current Biology1 that a constant barrage of bright light prematurely ages mice, playing havoc with their circadian clocks and causing a cascade of health problems. Mice exposed to constant light experienced bone-density loss, skeletal-muscle weakness and inflammation; restoring their health was as simple as turning the lights off. The findings are preliminary, but they suggest that people living in cities flooded with artificial light may face similar health risks. “We came to know that smoking was bad, or that sugar is bad, but light was never an issue,” says Meijer. “Light and darkness matter.” Disrupted patterns Many previous studies have hinted at a connection between artificial light exposure and health problems in animals and people2. Epidemiological analyses have found that shift workers have an increased risk of breast cancer3, metabolic syndrome4 and osteoporosis5, 6. People exposed to bright light at night are more likely to have cardiovascular disease and often don’t get enough sleep. © 2016 Macmillan Publishers Limited,
Keyword: Biological Rhythms
Link ID: 22442 - Posted: 07.15.2016
By Clare Wilson It is one of life’s great enigmas: why do we sleep? Now we have the best evidence yet of what sleep is for – allowing housekeeping processes to take place that stop our brains becoming overloaded with new memories. All animals studied so far have been found to sleep, but the reason for their slumber has eluded us. When lab rats are deprived of sleep, they die within a month, and when people go for a few days without sleeping, they start to hallucinate and may have epileptic seizures. One idea is that sleep helps us consolidate new memories, as people do better in tests if they get a chance to sleep after learning. We know that, while awake, fresh memories are recorded by reinforcing connections between brain cells, but the memory processes that take place while we sleep have remained unclear. Support is growing for a theory that sleep evolved so that connections in the brain can be pruned down during slumber, making room for fresh memories to form the next day. “Sleep is the price we pay for learning,” says Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who developed the idea. Now we have the most direct evidence yet that he’s right. Tononi’s team measured the size of these connections or synapses in brain slices taken from mice. The synapses in samples taken at the end of a period of sleep were 18 per cent smaller than those in samples taken from before sleep, showing that the synapses between neurons are weakened during slumber. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Karl Gruber For most birds the night brings a well-deserved rest. But for some, it is time for more risqué activities. Nocturnal birds sing at night – no surprises there – mainly to attract mates or repel rivals, the same reasons other birds sing at daytime. But a small number of species active by day also occasionally sing at night. Why they invest time and energy in such behaviour has been something of a mystery. Now Antonio Celis-Murillo at the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign and his colleagues think they have an answer – and it wasn’t what they expected. The team spent two years studying field sparrows, Spizella pusilla, a common bird across eastern North America. Active during the day, these birds are territorial and largely monogamous, though they engage in occasional infidelity. The researchers observed 28 pairs in the wild, recording the songs of territorial males, as well as those of intruder and neighbouring males. They then conducted playback experiments at night, studying the responses of the pairs. “I was surprised to see what these birds were up to,” says Celis-Murillo. The males sing to attract other male’s partners, and these females are all too willing to wake up for a night-time rendezvous. The team also found that males sang more during periods when females were reproductively receptive, and that the females responded to such song more often when they were fertile. The female’s mate didn’t appear to kick up a fuss and counter-sing – which would be expected if nocturnal songs served to repel rivals. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.