What’s Your Sleep Number?

Yesterday morning I was up at 3.15am to catch a flight, this morning it was 4.00am.  Tomorrow I have a 6.00am flight and on Friday I can look forward to another at 5.40am. Each of these early morning departures has, or will be, preceded by a late evening meeting.  All of which led me to thinking about sleep, or lack thereof.

A sleepless night can make us cranky and moody. So much so that sleep deprivation is sometimes used as a form of torture. So I was pleasantly surprised by new research that shows it can also bring on temporary euphoria.

Scientists at UC Berkeley and Harvard Medical School studied the brains of healthy young adults and found that their pleasure circuitry got a big boost after a missed night’s sleep. However that same neural pathway that stimulates feelings of euphoria, reward and motivation after a sleepless night may also lead to risky behavior.

When functioning correctly, the brain finds the sweet spot on the mood spectrum. But the sleep-deprived brain will swing to both extremes, neither of which is optimal for making wise decisions,” said Matthew Walker, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study.

The findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, underscore the need for people in high-stakes professions and circumstances not to shortchange themselves on sleep.

Medical professionals, airline pilots and new parents take note.  “Based on this evidence, I’d be concerned by an emergency room doctor who’s been up for 20 hours straight making rational decisions about my health” added Walker.

So how much sleep do we need?

Most adults function best with 7 to 9 hours of sleep, although only about two-thirds of Americans regularly get it. Children fare better with 8 to 12 hours, while elderly people may need only 6 to 7.

One-third of Americans are sleep-deprived, regularly getting less than 7 hours a night, which puts them at higher risk of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and other health problems.

And then there are “short sleepers”.  It’s estimated that about 1% to 3% of the population, function well on less than 6 hours of sleep. Such people are both night owls and early birds, and tend to be unusually energetic and outgoing.  Not only are their circadian rhythms different from most people, so are their moods and their metabolism. They also seem to have a high tolerance for physical pain and psychological setbacks.

Who are these people?  Some short sleepers say their sleep patterns go back to childhood and some see the same patterns starting in their own kids, such as giving up naps by age 2. “As adults, they gravitate to different fields, but whatever they do, they do full bore,” says Christopher Jones, a University of Utah neurologist and sleep scientist

Typically, at the end of a long, structured phone interview, they will admit that they’ve been texting and surfing the Internet and doing the crossword puzzle at the same time, all on less than six hours of sleep,” says Dr. Jones. “There is some sort of psychological and physiological energy to them that we don’t understand.”

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Leonardo da Vinci and Margaret Thatcher were too busy to sleep much, according to historical accounts. Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison came close but they were also fond of taking naps, which may disqualify them as true short sleepers.

Nowadays, some short sleepers gravitate to fields like blogging, and social media, where their sleep habits come in handy.

We can’t argue with that.  As many Word on Health readers have noted, ours is the first mail to hit their in-box every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

Have any sleep stories to share?  We’d love to hear from you.

Breathing your way to Brain Health?

A drug commonly used to treat asthma could help control or treat Alzheimer’s disease. The tablet which is used to prevent chest tightness, wheezing, and coughing due to asthma has now been shown to help reduce the formation of amyloid beta – a brain peptide implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers from Temple University’s School of Medicine just published their findings in the American Journal of Pathology. The study, led by Domenico Praticò, associate professor of pharmacology, tested  Zyflo® (Zileuton), which is currently approved for the prophylaxis and chronic treatment of asthma in adults and children 12 years of age and older.

Using a transgenic mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease they found that Zyflo, reduced production of amyloid beta and the subsequent build-up of amyloid plaques in the brain by more than 50%.

In previous studies, Temple University researchers discovered that 5-lipoxygenase, a brain enzyme, controls the activation of gamma secretase, another enzyme responsible for the production of amyloid beta.  Gamma secretase is present throughout the body and, despite its role in the development of amyloid plaques, plays a significant role in numerous important functions. Direct inhibitors of gamma secretase are already known, but blocking the enzyme completely may cause problems such as the development of cancer.

Unlike classical gamma secretase inhibitors, Zileuton only modulates the protein expression levels, which keeps some of its vital functions intact while blocking many of its bad effects – in this case, the development of the amyloid plaques.

Because Zileuton is already FDA approved, it should be able to advance to clinical trials for the Alzheimer’s indication relatively easily.

SRxA’s Word on Health will keep you informed of all developments.

He who felt it, probably smelt it

On the other hand, people who can’t feel pain, due to a rare genetic defect, also lack the sense of smell.  At least this seems to be the case according to a new small scale study just published in Nature. The unexpected discovery shows that nerves that detect pain and odors rely on the same protein to transmit information to the brain.

Researchers examined three people with mutations in the SCN9A gene which means they can’t feel pain.  All those studied had suffered multiple broken bones without feeling any pain, and two had gone through childbirth birth painlessly. However they weren’t aware that they also couldn’t smell a thing.

None of the study participants could distinguish balsamic vinegar, orange, mint, coffee or perfume from plain water, even when researchers poured on so much perfume and vinegar that the scents were unbearable to people with a normal sense of smell.

It may not be so strange that none of the people realized that they lacked a sense of smell. “If this was a genetic defect from birth they wouldn’t even know what they were missing,” says Graeme Lowe, a neurophysiologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia who was not involved in the study.

As oblivious as the patients were to their smell deficit, the scientists had been equally clueless that smell and pain shared a common communication gateway.

Researchers had previously shown that SCN9A controls pain sensitivity in people. The gene makes a sodium channel that lets sodium pass in through a nerve cell’s membrane when the nerve detects something painful. That flood of sodium sends an electrical signal racing toward the brain.

In the new study, the team discovered that odor-detecting nerve cells have the same sodium channel.

Because the sodium channel is missing in people with SCN9A mutations, the messages sent by pain and odor-sensing nerves never actually make it to the brain.

It was completely surprising that these two sensory systems would use the same sodium channel,” says Frank Zufall, a neurophysiologist at the University of Saarland School of Medicine in Homburg, Germany. “But it’s clearly not needed for all senses.” None of the people with the faulty gene had hearing or vision problems. The researchers next plan to test whether those people have a sense of taste, and whether taste cells also use the sodium channel to communicate.

These findings are particularly interesting given that some drug companies are working on painkilling drugs that block the sodium channel’s activity.  The results of this study suggest that such drugs could have the side effect of eliminating smell, and could also compromise people’s ability to taste.

Imagine going though life never knowing the smell of newly baked bread, or the delights of freshly ground coffee?  Now that would be painful!