Health & Fitness

Animal Kingdom Helping Treat Sleep Disorders

SPONSORED
McHenry County Magazine

"The only way to understand human sleep is to study animals," says Jerome Siegel, PhD, professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA Center for Sleep Research. "If we could better understand animal sleep, we could better understand the core aspects of sleep."

For many years, scientists struggled to identify the brain abnormality in humans that causes narcolepsy. Little did they know that dogs would become invaluable in treating the disease.

Major advances in treating narcolepsy were made in the 1970s, when William Dement, MD, PhD, of the Stanford University Sleep Research Center learned that certain dogs displayed similar symptoms of narcolepsy as in humans: sudden collapse and muscle weakness leading to near-paralysis.

These initial observations led to the identification by Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD, at Stanford University, over 20 years later, of the narcolepsy-causing gene in dogs, hypocretin receptor 2.

Further studies by Siegel and Mignot showed that humans who suffer from narcolepsy had a severely reduced amount of the narcolepsy-preventing chemical hypocretin in their brains. Siegel also discovered that injecting hypocretin in dogs reduces the degree of some symptoms. These findings suggest that it may be possible to design drugs that replace the missing hypocretin.

 "You are happy when you make a discovery, but you are really, really happy when you make a discovery with therapeutic possibilities," says Mignot.

Studying animals' sleep patterns and sleep habits carries the potential to benefit other brain disorders in humans. Unihemispheral sleep in birds and dolphins—where one side of the brain remains awake in sleep—may provide new clues into the human brain. According Charles Amlaner, Jr., PhD, Director of Animal Research at Indiana State University, the bird's sleeping brain could be used in the future as the model to help treat debilitating brain illnesses in humans.

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