Where Sleep Resides in the Brain

Insomnia is the most common sleep complaint at any age. It affects almost half of adults 60 and older, according to the National Institutes of Health. (Image credit: © Marcin Kempski |Dreamstime.com")

Does it keep you awake at night, knowing that an evil genius (is it tacky to call myself a genius?) is out there, plotting the destruction of humanity, inching his schemes ever maddeningly closer to their awful, Earth-shattering fruition?  Well, toss and turn no longer, because my newest plot will leave the whole world snoring peacefully through its downfall!  And this time, it won't just be a consequence of my rhetorical style.

Which is to say that I intend to use some recent findings in sleep science from researchers at Washington State University to launch humanity into a calculated catnap at an opportune juncture — but I shall get to that in due time, have no fear.

The researchers, led by James Krueger (no relation to dream specialist Freddy Krueger, whose work made a splash in the mid-80s) have identified a mechanism crucial to the transition from wakefulness into la-la land. Their work has pointed to the molecule adenosine triphosphate (ATP) as a key player in the zonking-out process.

ATP has another, more generalized role in the brain, and in all biological life – as the fundamental means of energy exchange in all cells. It makes the cell go round, just like money makes the world go round (until I take over, at which point I become responsible for that). That means that it's being produced all the time, particularly in active cells.

What Krueger's group has found is that the buildup of ATP in the brain leads to the release of a class of molecules known as Sleep Regulatory Substances (SRSs). Of course, Sleep Regulatory Substances have long been recognized as crucial to the regulation of sleep (the name provided a hint), but until Krueger's team identified the role of ATP in SRS release, the cause of their action remained a mystery.

The researchers used mice as their guinea pigs for testing the relationship between ATP and sleep. When mice were given drugs that stimulate their purine receptors (which assist in the release of SRSs in response to ATP), they fell readily into a deep sleep. Other mice, given drugs to block their purine receptors, found themselves lying awake at night and watching re-runs of "I Love Lucy" until 3 a.m.

Krueger's results are exciting for sleep scientists and insomniacs alike: In addition to helping demonstrate how the brain knows when it needs to sleep, it suggests new methods for developing sleep aids to prevent the sorts of late-night "Lucy" marathons that are endemic to almost 50 million Americans. Targeting the receptors for ATP could help millions of restless individuals hit the hay and keep hitting it.

And, as always, this study fits in rather nicely with the latest in my fiendish scheming. Knowing that ATP acts as an effective source of shut-eye, I'll unleash a deluge of the soporific substance in America's civic centers and elementary schools at a carefully selected time – Nov. 6, 2012, the next presidential election.  With all the voters safely sawing logs in their booths, the absentee ballots successfully rerouted to my laboratory address, and the polling machines still functioning, all I need to do is saunter over to my polling place in my nicest gas mask and write myself in as a candidate for commander in chief.

Next thing you know I'll be standing at the White House in my lab coat and radioactive-green tie, tossing my head back and cackling as the band plays "Hail to the Chief." Though perhaps you'd rather just sleep through the ceremony.

More Mad Scientist:

Mad scientist Eric Schaffer has one index finger on the "fire death ray!" button and his other index finger on the exciting pulse of scientific research. His accounts of diabolical machinations, as well as research breakthroughs, appear regularly on LiveScience.