While You Were Sleeping

As students all over the globe head back to school, we imagine many of them are looking for ways to make learning a little easier and studying a little less onerous. Imagine, for example, how cool it would be if you could study for that upcoming chemistry exam while you were sleeping?

Sadly, that’s not yet a reality. But, as SRxA’s Word on Health learned this week, scientists are getting closer to understanding sleep learning.

Older studies of sleep learning (think of the old tape recorder-under-the-pillow experiments) pretty much failed to demonstrate that it’s possible to absorb information while sleeping. In most cases the trials themselves were flawed. In some cases the subjects were briefly woken during the trials, or else they took place during unnatural sleep, with the subjects drugged.

More recently however, a number of studies have suggested that there may be some sort of connection between sleep and learning and memory consolidation. Anat Arzi, a PhD student working with Prof. Noam Sobel  at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel was intrigued and set out to find the right teaching method. “In spite of all the previous research, we thought that some kind of sleep learning should be possible. The question was: which kind?”

Tones and smells turned out to be ideal. They don’t wake the sleepers, yet they are sensed during sleep. And sniffing – the reflexive response to the odors – occurs whether asleep or awake. That meant that instead of relying on reported memories, the researchers only had to watch for the long, deep sniff we automatically take when we smell a good smell, or the short, shallow one associated with a bad smell. When this occurred they knew that their subjects had been conditioned to associate a tone with a particular odor – even though the subjects themselves had no recall, whatsoever, of the “lesson” they had learned while asleep.

Imagine that you wake up in the morning feeling nothing special, yet you find yourself inexplicably behaving just a bit differently during the day. For example, you take a sniff every time you hear a tone,” said Sobel.

This may be the first incontrovertible demonstration of sleep learning in human adult brains.

So what’s next? Sobel and Arzi found that the conditioning is best retained when it takes place during non-REM sleep and plan to explore this further.  Whether or not they find the magic connection that will one day enable us to memorize the periodic table as we sleep, finding proof for one type of sleep learning suggests that others might be possible.

Getting Cheery Over Cherries!

Regular readers of SRxA’s Word on Health will be familiar with the many claimed health benefits of fruit. Bananas for HIV prevention, citrus to safeguard us against stroke, berries to prevent Parkinson’s Disease and even exotic cupuaçu for improved reproductive health.

According to many, including TV’s Dr. Oz, the latest superfruit on the block is tart cherries. Extensive research has linked the delicious bright red fruit to a number of benefits, including better sleep, reduced pain from gout and arthritis, reduced post-exercise muscle and joint pain as well as reduced cholesterol, and decreased risk for atherosclerosis and metabolic syndrome.

Dr. Oz, has gone so far as to say that tart cherries are the ultimate antioxidant.

New research from Oregon Health & Science University presented last week at the American College of Sports Medicine Conference confirmed that tart cherries can help to reduce chronic inflammation and can help people with osteoarthritis manage their disease.

In a study of twenty women ages 40 – 70 with inflammatory osteoarthritis, the researchers found that drinking tart cherry juice twice daily for three weeks led to significant reductions in important inflammation markers – especially for those women who had the highest inflammation levels at the start of the study.

With millions of Americans looking for ways to naturally manage pain, it’s promising that tart cherries can help, without the possible side effects often associated with arthritis medications,” said principal study investigator Kerry Kuehl, M.D. “I’m intrigued by the potential for a real food to offer such a powerful anti-inflammatory benefit – especially for active adults.”

Often characterized as “wear and tear” arthritis, osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. Athletes are often at a greater risk for developing the condition, given their excessive joint use that can cause a breakdown in cartilage and lead to pain and injury.

Anthocyanins – the antioxidant compounds in tart cherries – appear to reduce inflammation to levels comparable to some well-known pain medications.

Previous research on tart cherries and osteoarthritis found that a daily dose of tart cherries helped reduce osteoarthritis pain by more than 20%.

Leslie Bonci, Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center for Sports Medicine, has incorporated tart cherries into the training menu of her professional athletes. She claims they are a natural and easy way to manage pain and also taste great.

Never heard of tart cherries, or concerned that they have such a short season?  The great news is that they are available year-round in dried, frozen, powder and juice forms too.

Springing Forward Safely

SRxA’s Word on Health reminds you to turns your clocks forward an hour before going to bed tomorrow night. But as your dream of that extra hour of daylight, remember all good things come with a price.  First, the switch to summer time means we all lose an hours’ sleep. More worryingly, the time change may be bad for your health.

According to experts at the University of Alabama in the days immediately following the time change your risk of having a heart attack goes up by about 10%.

Because the Sunday morning of the time change doesn’t require an abrupt schedule change for most people, the elevated risk doesn’t kick in until Monday when people rise earlier to go to work.

Interestingly, the opposite happens in the fall, when we turn the clocks back. Then, the risk of heart attacks drops by 10%.

Exactly why this happens is not known but there are several theories,” says Associate Professor Martin Young, Ph.D. from the University of Alabama’s Division of Cardiovascular Disease.  “Sleep deprivation, the body’s circadian clock and immune responses all can come into play when considering reasons that changing the time by an hour can be detrimental to someone’s health.”

Young offers several possible explanations:

Individuals who are sleep-deprived weigh more and are at an increased risk of developing diabetes or heart disease. Sleep deprivation also can alter other body processes, including inflammatory response, which can contribute to a heart attack. Apparently, your reaction to sleep deprivation and the time change also depends on whether you are a morning person or night owl. Night owls have a much more difficult time with springing forward.

Circadian clock – every cell in the body has its own clock that allows it to anticipate when something is going to happen and prepare for it. When there is a shift, such as springing forward, it takes a while for the cells to readjust. It’s comparable to knowing that you have a meeting at 2 p.m. and having time to prepare your presentation instead of being told at the last minute and not being able to prepare.

Immune function – immune cells have a clock, and the immune response depends greatly on the time of day. In animal studies, when a mouse is given a sub-lethal dose of an endotoxin that elicits a strong immune response, survival depends upon the time of day they were given this endotoxin. Mice that were put through a phased advance much like Daylight Savings Time, and then had a challenge to their immune system, died, whereas the control animals that were not subjected to a phased advance survive when given the same dose of the toxin.

Fortunately, the body’s clock eventually synchs to the new time on its own.  In the meantime we offer you some tips to help you ease your body into the adjustment.

  • Wake up 30 minutes earlier on Saturday and Sunday than you need to in preparation for the early start on Monday
  • Eat a decent-sized breakfast
  • Go outside in the sunlight in the early morning
  • Exercise in the mornings over the weekend

These tricks will help reset both the master, clock in the brain that reacts to changes in light/dark cycles, and the peripheral clocks — the ones everywhere else including the one in the heart — that react to food intake and physical activity, thereby reducing the chance of a heart attack on Monday.

Assuming we all survive the annual time change shock to our system, we look forward to seeing you back here after the weekend.

Tick-tock, tick-tock…we’ll explain your biological clock!

If, like me, you’re one of those people who wake up at exactly the same time every morning without ever setting an alarm clock you’ve no doubt had people ask how you do it? Well, now you can tell them!

According to researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies it’s all in our genes.  Recently they identified a gene responsible for starting our biological clock every morning.

The biological clock ramps up our metabolism early each day, initiating important physiological functions that tell our bodies that it’s time to rise and shine. Discovery of this new gene and the mechanism by which it starts the clock everyday may help explain the genetic underpinnings of sleeplessness, aging, and chronic illnesses such as cancer and diabetes.  Better still, it could eventually lead to new therapies for these illnesses.

The body is essentially a collection of clocks,” says Satchidananda Panda, an associate professor in Salk’s Regulatory Biology Laboratory, who led the research along with Luciano DiTacchio, a post-doctoral research associate. “We roughly knew what mechanism told the clock to wind down at night, but we didn’t know what activated us again in the morning. Now that we’ve found it, we can explore more deeply how our biological clocks malfunction as we get older and develop chronic illness.”

In a report just published in Science, the Salk researchers and their collaborators at McGill University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine describe how the gene encodes a protein that serves as an activation switch in the biochemical circuit that maintains our circadian rhythm. The discovery fills in a missing link in the molecular mechanisms that control our daily wake-sleep cycle.

It turns out that the molecular bugle call for cells and organs to get back to work each morning is an enzyme known as JARID1a.

Now that scientists understand why we wake each day, they can explore the role of JARID1a in sleep disorders and chronic diseases, possibly using it as a target for new drugs.

SRxA’s Word on Health looks forward to these developments and to a good night’s sleep!

Synchrotron scientists suggest solution to sneezing sans sleepiness

As allergy sufferers we know all too well that although many over-the-counter antihistamines relieve symptoms, we’re are often too groggy to enjoy the respite. Now, thanks to some sleuth work by a team of international scientists, the way has been paved for antihistamines with fewer side-effects.

An international team of scientists has successfully cracked the  code for the complex 3-D structure of the human histamine H1 receptor protein. Using an X-ray beam 100 billion times stronger than normal,  at Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron facility, researchers were able to get a 3D picture of the shape of H1 receptors.

Published this week in Nature, this discovery opens the door for the development of ‘third-generation’ antihistamines.

The H1 receptor protein is found in the cell membranes of various human tissues including airways, vascular and intestinal muscles, and the brain. It binds to histamine and has an important function in the immune system. However, in susceptible individuals it can cause allergic reactions such as hay fever, food allergies and pet allergies. Antihistamine drugs work because they prevent histamine attaching to H1 receptors.

Dr. Simone Weyand, postdoctoral scientist at Imperial College London, who conducted much of the experimental work at Diamond, said: “First-generation antihistamines are effective, but not very selective, and because of penetration across the blood-brain barrier, they can cause side-effects including sedation, dry mouth and arrhythmias.”

The team comprised of leading experts from The Scripps Research Institute in California, Kyoto University, Imperial College London and Diamond worked for 16 months on the project.

Professor So Iwata, Director of the Membrane Protein Laboratory at Diamond, said: “It took a considerable team effort but we were finally able to elucidate the molecular structure of the histamine H1 receptor protein and also see how it interacts with antihistamines. This detailed structural information is a great starting point for exploring exactly how histamine triggers allergic reactions and how drugs act to prevent this reaction.”

Word on Health’s allergy prone bloggers will be eagerly awaiting developments and will bring you news as it happens…assuming of course we can stay awake to do so!

Dozing Off or Going Off Line?

If, like us, you’ve ever “misplaced” your keys or stuck the milk in the cupboard and the cereal in the refrigerator, we have good news for you. According to new research, chances are you’re not going mad, or showing signs of early Alzheimer’s – your brain may simply have been taking a nap!

The study published this week in Nature suggests that certain napping neurons in an otherwise awake brain may be responsible for the attention lapses, poor judgment, mistake-proneness and irritability that we’ve all experienced when we haven’t had enough sleep.

Doctors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison say they have found that some nerve cells in a sleep-deprived, yet awake, brain can briefly go “off line,” into a sleep-like state, while the rest of the brain appears awake.

Even before you feel fatigued, there are signs in the brain that you should stop certain activities that may require alertness,” says Dr. Chiara Cirelli, Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine and Public Health. “Specific groups of neurons may be falling asleep, with negative consequences on performance.”

Until now, scientists thought that sleep deprivation generally affected the entire brain. EEGs typically show network brain-wave patterns typical of either being asleep or awake.  Micro sleep, a term used to describe momentary periods of sleep that can occur at any time, typically without significant warning was thought to be the most likely cause of accidents due to falling asleep at the wheel while driving.

But the new research found that even before that stage, brains are already showing sleep-like activity that impairs them.  In the current study, researchers inserted probes into the brains of freely-behaving rats. After the rats were kept awake for prolonged periods, the probes showed areas of “local sleep” despite the animals’ appearance of being awake and active.
And there were behavioral consequences to the local sleep episodes. When they kept the rats up beyond their bedtime, the rats started to make mistakes. When challenged to do a tricky task, such as reaching with one paw to get a sugar pellet, they began to drop the pellets or miss in reaching for them, indicating that a few neurons might have gone off line.

This activity happened in few cells,” Cirelli adds. “Out of 20 neurons we monitored in one experiment, 18 stayed awake. From the other two, there were signs of sleep—brief periods of activity alternating with periods of silence.”

So, the next time you do something dumb, don’t blame yourself, just tell people your brain was off-line!

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.