MGH/MIT Study Identifies Neurons Important for Inductions of Natural REM Sleep

A joint research team from Mass General and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) may be one step closer to understanding the science of sleep.

Using a scanning method that can activate light-sensitive proteins, the researchers found that the activation of cholinergic neurons (those that release the neurotransmitter acetylcholine) in two structures of the brain stem are key to inducing REM (rapid-eye movement) sleep in lab models.

Both REM and non-REM sleep perform important functions, but current sleep aids cannot effectively replicate the cycling between each stage that occurs during natural sleep. By gaining a better understanding of the mechanisms that underlie sleep, investigators may be able to develop more effective remedies for sleep disorders.

Dr. Christa Van Dort of the Mass General Department of Anesthesia, Critical Care and Pain Medicine and MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences is lead author of the study.

Photo caption: Confocal images of cells in an area of the brain stem called the PPT show expression of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (red) and of a light responsive protein (green). The merged image on the right shows neurons expressing both (yellow). (Christa Van Dort, PhD)

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