The channel that leads to deep sleep has been discovered by scientists, potentially paving the way for the development of drug therapies to treat sleep-related disorders.
Researchers found a specific calcium channel that leads to deep sleep – the part of the sleep cycle that is believed to restore the body and brain from waking activity.
The scientists, from the New York University School of Medicine, published their findings in the Proceeding for the National Academy of Sciences.
They showed how the calcium channel CaV3.1 is involved in deep sleep in a study of mice – the mice that lacked CaV3.1 took longer to fall asleep and woke up more often. They were incapable of maintaining low-frequency oscillatory activity associated with unconsciousness.
Study author Rodolfo R. Llinas told IBTimes UK: "The issue at this moment is trying to understand the nature of sleep. The issue historically has been either you are asleep or you are awake."
He said the state of sleep is known to be generated by a host of calcium channels. In the study, the mice had everything but the CaV3.1 channel: "What we have found is that if you do that, if you remove those channels, the mice can sleep but they don't' sleep very deeply or for very long," he said.
"If you do that to an animal, the animal only has what is called cat naps. They don't sleep very deeply and they wake up often. So they don't get the deep refreshing important sleep. This is the issue."
These findings, he said, have important implications for people with certain psychiatric conditions which cause them to not sleep properly. The mice in the study were found to be very nervous, detached and wary – not unlike what happens in humans who are deprived of deep sleep.
"It basically means we have a target to study in many conditions in humans. As far as the therapeutic situation, probably the way we would try to proceed is to try to optimise the calcium channels that actually allow deep sleep. This could be done pharmacologically and this is something we are going to be addressing. It opens fields and it's wonderful."