Researchers believe they've identified the part of the brain which ends light sleep, called the non-rapid eye movement (NREM) cycle, and ultimately wakes you up. Professor Antoine Adamantidis from the University of Bern and his team found a neural circuit sandwiched between two brain regions, called hypothalamus and thalamus, and tested its reaction in mice to light pulses. Stimulating the region with this optogenetics technique triggered "rapid awakenings" from light sleep, while a more concentrated effort caused "prolonged wakefulness."
The discovery is exciting, Adamantidis says, because it could lead to new techniques designed to help people recover consciousness from a vegetative or minimally conscious state. Furthermore, it could be used to help patients with sleep disorders, or at least better understand what's stopping them from getting a good night's rest. Electrical stimulation isn't a new idea, but before it was used without a full understanding of the different brain regions and how they affect our sleeping patterns. With this extra knowledge, more deft treatments could soon be developed.
Just don't expect them too soon. "Even though we made an important step forward now, it will take some time before novel therapeutical strategies will be designed based on our results," Adamantidis stresses.