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Can A Drug Offset the Impact of Sleep Deprivation?

Anybody who has ever spent a night tossing and turning knows all too well that sleeplessness has a negative impact on the ability to think clearly, to remember details and to respond appropriately and quickly. Lack of sleep makes us cranky, fuzzy and forgetful, and that’s after just one night – just imagine what it feels like to somebody who suffers from chronic insomnia. Now a recent study out of the University of Pennsylvania is offering hope to those whose lives are impacted by constant sleep deprivation. Scientist there have found in experiments performed using laboratory animals that there are certain medications that can be used to counter the impact that lack of sleep has.

The way that a sleep deprived person thinks and feels is a result of a disturbance in the molecular pathway in the part of our brains that is directly tied in to our ability to remember and to learn. What the Penn scientists found is that by taking a drug that inhibits a specific enzyme, the pathway disturbance is minimized and the mice are better able to function on memory and cognitive tests. This means that the researchers have not only pinpointed the enzyme that is behind the problem, but that they have also found a chemical means of countering its impact. The tests involved taking groups of mice and allowing half to sleep normally while sleep depriving the others. Those that were not permitted to sleep predictably exhibited signs of having difficulty in learning, failing to be able to perform a basic retrieval task that they had learned previously. An analysis of the part of the brain that is used for memory and learning — the hippocampus — revealed that the mice that had not been permitted to sleep had elevated amounts of a specific enzyme called PDE4 present. They also had decreased levels of a molecule called cAMP which is known to play an important role in the brain’s ability to make connections called synapses. Synapses must form in order for learning to happen.

After detecting these differences between the sleep deprived group and the well rested group, the scientists administered a medication called Rolipram which is a known enzyme inhibitor. The drug not only reduced the PDE4 levels but also increased the levels of cAMP, and as a result all of the previously exhibited memory problems were diminished. According to lead researcher Ted Abel, “A major challenge in the field of sleep research has been to determine how the sleep disruptions associated with neurological and psychiatric disorders, ageing and everyday living, affect cognitive function. The findings presented here define a molecular mechanism underlying the effects of sleep deprivation on hippocampal function at the behavioral and synaptic level.” This may lead to treatment down the road for those who are most severely affected by sleep deprivation.

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