According to a recent article in Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, the neural circuit that is responsible for insomnia has been identified by scientists at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) in New York.
Chronically Stressed Patients
For years, scientists have suspected that insomnia may be stress-related. Evidence has shown that patients who are chronically stressed fare worse when receiving certain treatments and also when stricken with various diseases.
Now the CSHL scientists have pinpointed a neural connection that causes loss of sleep. The discovery involves neurons in the brain that are sensitive to stress and cause the release of cortisol. It also involves neurons in the region that cause insomnia.
In addition, these findings showed that the same neural circuit also caused changes to the immune system.
The CSHL Study
The CSHL study, published in Science Advances, used mouse models. It confirmed that the neuronal connections that cause insomnia are tied to stress-induced alterations in the immune system weakening the body’s defenses.
When the team interrupted the connection, the mice were able to sleep even though they had been exposed to stress. Jeremy Borniger, assistant professor assigned to the study, remarked that insomnia can occur with the slightest stimulation.
The connection also caused changes to cell distribution in the immune system and the disruption of signaling pathways.
As part of the study, the researchers replicated these changes by stimulation of the same neurons linking stress to insomnia.
It was discovered that signaling by hormones released by brain cells greatly affects neurons that induce insomnia.
Looking Towards the Future
The next step for Professor Borniger and his team will be to find out how to manipulate the brain’s circuits in connection with inflammatory diseases such as cancer or inflammatory bowel disease.
Professor Borniger suggests that manipulation of the immune system by the body’s natural circuitry is preferable to using drugs.
The study has created new targets in treating insomnia. Researchers now have a broader understanding of stress-related consequences in disease and in people who are in good health.