In a perfect world, I’d be able to get by with about 3 hours of perfect sleep a day — which would leave me a heck of lot more time to do fun stuff. According to an article in the May 1st online edition of Science Daily (www.sciencedaily.com) the potential to unravel the mysteries of why we need to sleep and how sleep restores the brain is getting closer to being resolved. Giulio Tononi — professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health (www.med.wisc.edu) — has discovered how to stimulate brain waves that characterize the deepest stage of sleep. The discovery of these brain waves could be instrumental in shedding new light onto the role of sleep in keeping humans healthy, happy and able to learn.
The brain function in question — which researchers refer to as “slow wave activity” — is critical to the restoration of mood and the ability to learn, think and remember.
ScienceDaily.com described the use of a transcranial magnetic stimulation instrument — also referred to as “TMS”) — to initiate slow waves in sleeping volunteers.
A follow-up article published in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica (www.larepubblica.it) that focused on Professor Tononi (who is — after all — Italian) recounts that the TMS instrument sends a harmless magnetic signal through the scalp and skull and into the brain, where it activates electrical impulses. In response to each burst of magnetism, the subjects’ brains immediately produced slow waves typical of deep sleep. So, with a single pulse, researchers are able to induce a wave that looks identical to the waves the brain makes normally during sleep.
In fact, ScienceDaily points out that Tononi has learned that the best location to place the TMS device is above a specific part of the brain, where it causes slow waves that travel throughout the cranium.
The current train-of-thought is that slow waves are not just something that “happen”, but that are a fundamental part in sleep’s restorative powers. For example, according to the La Repubblica article, a sleep-deprived person has larger and more numerous slow waves once asleep. And as sleep proceeds, the slow waves weaken, which may signal that the need for sleep is partially satisfied.
And tieing this all in to my dream of being able to cram 10 hours of sleep into two or three, those days may not be too far off. Science Daily says that creating slow waves on demand could someday lead to treatments for insomnia, where slow waves may be reduced. Theoretically, it could also lead to a magnetically stimulated “power nap,” which might confer the benefit of eight hours sleep in just a few hours.
There is a lot of work and research to be done before that happens. Researchers specifically need to prove that artificial slow waves have restorative benefits to the brain. Such an experiment would ask whether sleep with TMS leads to greater brain restoration than an equal amount of sleep without TMS.
An even greater challenge than the creation of the TMS — what some are calling a “deep sleep pacemaker” — is understanding why sleep is even necessary in the first place.