Scientists build optical switch to induce ‘dream sleep’




A group of US scientists can literally put the brains in a particular sleep state. In mice they have built in an optical switch which can be turned with a laser, so as to bring the animals in REM sleep. This is usually responsible for most dreams.

The research was conducted by the University of California at Berkeley and published in the renowned scientific journal Nature. In summary, the scientists have found a way to induce REM sleep in animals. They do so by activating specific neurons in a brain region called the medulla. This specific group of neurons do their job by the production of the neurotransmitter GABA, and there was already suspected that they play an important role in inducing REM sleep.

In order to investigate the exact role of these neurons, the Berkeley researchers built an optical switch in the brains of mice. When you turn on this switch, by means of laser light, the neurons in the medulla were activated, after which the scientists discovered that the brake-sleep after a few seconds was introduced.

The switch is constructed by using viruses that are able to infect a specific types of neurons, and then build in genes in the DNA that produce special ducts. These channels move after the production in the cell nucleus to the cell surface and able to open itself as they are stimulated by a light signal, in this case originating from a laser. Once opened, ions flow into the cell and increased neuronal activity.

Rem is an abbreviation for rapid eye movement, and is a ‘sleep mode’ which is characterized by a relatively high brain activity. Most dreams are induced in this state and are also the most intense. By activating the brake-sleep, it is also possible to stimulate dreams. Incidentally, the mice in the study had already fallen asleep first to make the switch do its job: turning the switch in awake mice made sure only that they were going to eat.

According to the researchers, the optical switch can be used to investigate rem sleep. The precise operation and function of sleep is still much unknown. Theoretically, the technique could also be used to induce it dreams, but such plans do not seem to have been formulated. Also applications people do not, on the schedule.


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