Sleep Studies Part 1: Seals Offer a Peek into Human Sleep

seals

An increasing amount of sleep research is being conducted on a daily basis, and some of it is quite intriguing. To that end, we’re starting a new series on the PlushBeds Blog on “sleep studies”. You can expect to see posts on new sleep studies periodically as fascinating new sleep research comes out.

Seals Sleep With Half of Their Brain

A new sleep study published online in the Journal of Neuroscience has identified chemicals in a seal’s brain that enable them to sleep with half of their brain at a time. In other words, seals have the ability to be awake and asleep simultaneously! How amazing is that?

Headed and collaborated by an international team of scientists and biologists at the University of Toronto and UCLA, the sleep research gurus found that there are chemical cues in a seal’s brain to allow the mammal to remain both half awake and half asleep.

“Seals do something biologically amazing — they sleep with half their brain at a time. The left side of their brain can sleep while the right side stays awake. Seals sleep this way while they’re in water, but they sleep like humans while on land. Our research may explain how this unique biological phenomenon happens” said Professor John Peever of the University of Toronto.

It’s important to note that while at rest in water one half of a seal’s brain is lulled in a slumber state, while the other will remain active and alert. However, the entire brain shuts down when asleep on land. The reason for this adaptive behavior could be a matter of survival — to ward off predators while asleep in the water.

Significance of Seal Sleep Study

While the sleeping pattern sleep studies research was conducted on seals, it may hold some clues into human sleep. For one, it suggests that biological mechanisms are at work that enable the brain to stay alert during waking hours. More importantly, these findings could have potential benefits for human health due to the many people who have trouble sleeping, whether from insomnia, sleep disorders, or other sleep problems.

“It could help solve the mystery of how and why we sleep,” says the Jerome Siegel of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute and the study’s senior author. “About 40% of North Americans suffer from sleep problems and understanding which brain chemicals function to keep us awake or asleep is a major scientific advance,” Siegel says.

synapses

The Chemicals: Acetylcholine and Serotonin

The scientists found that an important chemical in the brain — called acetylcholine — was present in lower levels on the side of the sleeping brain and at higher levels on the waking side of the brain. The researchers conclude that this suggests that acetylcholine may play an important part of brain alertness of the awake side of the brain.

What’s more, another chemical in the brain — called serotonin — was identified in equal levels on either side of the brain, regardless of the seal being asleep or awake. This finding was unexpected because sleep researchers long believed that brain arousal was caused, at least in part, by serotonin.

Using scanners to measure the seals brain electrical activity and tubes inserted in the cortex to measure these chemicals, the researchers measured how these chemical changed in both the awake and sleeping states.

Implications of the Seal Sleep Study

Both humans and seals are large-brained mammals. By studying sleep in comparable species, scientists may be able to find some beneficial discoveries that ultimately result in breakthrough treatments for human sleep.

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