Sound Awake: “Noisy” Neurons May Repeatedly Disrupt Your Sleep
Study proposes novel sleep theory, but whether it can explain infant death syndrome remains less clear
You don’t remember it, but you woke up at least 100 times last night. These spontaneous arousals, lasting less than 15 seconds each, occur roughly every five minutes and don’t seem to affect how well-rested you feel. They are unrelated to waking up from a bad dream or your partner tossing and turning. Instead, they seem to be linked to some internal biological mechanism.
Frequently waking up throughout the night may have protected early humans from predators by increasing their awareness of their surroundings during sleep. “The likelihood someone would notice an animal is higher [if they] wake up more often,” says Ronny Bartsch, a senior lecturer in the Department of Physics at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. “When you wake up, you’re more prone to hear things. In deep sleep, you’re completely isolated.”
Sleep scientists, however, have been stumped as to what triggers these nocturnal disruptions. In a new Science Advances paper Bartsch proposes an innovative hypothesis that spontaneous arousals are due to random electrical activity in a specific set of neurons in the brain—aptly named the wake-promoting neurons.
Even when you are asleep your brain cells continuously buzz with a low level of electrical activity akin to white noise on the radio. Occasionally, this electrical clamor reaches a threshold that triggers the firing of neurons. The new paper suggests that when random firing occurs in the wake-promoting neurons, a person briefly jerks awake. But this is countered by a suite of sleep-promoting neurons that helps one quickly fall back to sleep.
Low-level electrical activity in neurons increases in colder temperatures whereas warmer temperatures flatten it. As a result, there should be fewer spontaneous arousals in hot weather. To test this theory, the researchers created computer models that mapped how neuronal noise should act at different temperatures and how the varying electrical activity could affect spontaneous arousals. They also measured sleep in zebra fish, which have similar day/night cycles to humans but are ectothermic, meaning their body temperature is controlled by the environment rather than by internal processes.