To sleep, perchance to learn?

Sleep deprivation is ubiquitous in today’s society, and we have all felt the effects of sleep loss on our ability to function optimally, physically and especially mentally. In particular, it has become clear that the brain requires sleep to efficiently establish many forms of long-term memory. However, it is still unknown what sleep deprivation actually does to the brain to impair its function. In a recently published review in the journal Cellular Signalling, authors Christopher G. Vecsey from Brandeis University and Robbert Havekes and Ted Abel from the University of Pennsylvania have tried to capture the current state of our knowledge about the molecular and cellular effects of sleep deprivation that could explain why sleep loss is so detrimental for memory formation. The review focuses primarily on memories for events and places, which are thought to be formed and stored in the area of the brain called the hippocampus.

A key approach to learn about the nitty-gritty effects of sleep deprivation has been research in rodents. Therefore, the authors begin by summarizing how sleep deprivation studies are carried out in rodents, and how sleep deprivation affects memory and several signaling pathways in the brain. Notably, they review the effects of sleep loss on neurotransmitter systems such as acetylcholine, glutamate, and GABA, all of which could potentially modulate learning and memory. The authors also discuss some of the newest and most exciting studies on the topic of sleep loss, including a handful of experiments in which researchers have been able to reverse the effects of sleep deprivation through pharmacological treatments. For example, the authors describe one of their own studies in which sleep deprivation in mice caused memory deficits and reduced signaling through the cAMP pathway, which is known to be crucial for long-term memory. This molecular effect was likely caused by accelerated breakdown of cAMP by phosphodiesterase 4 (PDE4). When mice were treated with a PDE4 inhibitor during the period of sleep deprivation, memory formation remained unaffected. Rescue of memory defects were also obtained in separate studies in which rodents were treated either with nicotine, caffeine, or CPT, an antagonist of the adenosine A1 receptor. Two related studies also found that the effects of sleep deprivation on memory could be ameliorated by prevention of transmitter release from cells in the brain called glia. This was the first indication that brain cells other than neurons are impacted by sleep deprivation and that they contribute to the effects of sleep loss on the ability to remember new information.

As the authors mention, goals for studies in the immediate future will be to identify additional ways that sleep deprivation affects the brain, determine why sleep deprivation targets these molecules, and discover how these targets interact with each other to impair the normal function of the brain. Finally, hopefully our growing knowledge can be used to develop treatments for the cognitive deficits produced by sleep loss in people, especially those who have impaired sleep due to a medical condition, such as insomnia, chronic pain, sleep apnea, or one of the many neurodegenerative or psychiatric disorders associated with disturbed sleep patterns.

Christopher G. Vecsey is a postdoctoral fellow in the Griffith Lab at Brandeis, where he continues to work on interactions between sleep and learning. Chris is supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Health.

Sleepy and seasick

Associate Professor of Psychology Paul DiZio is interviewed about recent research in the Ashton Graybiel Spatial Orientation Laboratory on the interactions of sleep deprivation and body motion in a new article at BrandeisNOW, “How much sleep’s enough? Navy wants to know

Light buffers the wake‐promoting effect of dopamine

Sleep is driven and regulated by the integration of diverse internal and external (environmental) cues. Light is known to be a potent inhibitor of sleep in diurnal animals (awake during daylight hours and sleep at night), including both humans and fruit flies. Yet wakefulness does not scale linearly with light intensity and a lack of light does not automatically result in sleep. (Evolution seems unlikely to favor animals who become hyperactive in dangerously hot midday sunlight and fall asleep in an uncontrollable narcoleptic fashion when the sun goes down, unable to wake until the next morning.) The sleep regulatory system must be plastic — capable of weighing the relative importance of incoming sleep and wake‐promoting cues, and buffering the effects of those cues on sleep drive accordingly. In a recent Nature Neuroscience paper from a team led by postdoc Yuhua Shang (Rosbash lab), with collaborators from the Griffth, Pollack, and Hong labs at Brandeis, we determined at the cell and molecular level how the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, is able to buffer the wake‐promoting effects of the neurotransmitters dopamine and octopamine in the presence of light in order to maintain a proper sleep:wake balance.

It is known that dopamine and octopamine both promote wakefulness in flies. Previous work in the Rosbash and Griffith labs has shown that 10 neurons in the Drosophila brain that release the neuropeptide pigment‐dispersing factor (PDF), known as the l‐LNvs, are critical for transducing the wake‐promoting effects of light. Quantifying mRNAs from all 18 PDF-expressing neurons revealed an enrichment of octopamine and dopamine receptors specifically in the ten wake‐promoting l‐LNvs. We wondered if the l‐LNvs were also able to respond to and transduce the wake‐promoting effects of dopamine and octopamine, and if so, how these effects were integrated with the wake‐promoting effects of light by these cells.

Figure: The l-LNvs use two parallel intracellular pathways to regulate the stimulating effects of DA and OA. Both DA and OA increase the cAMP levels in the l-LNvs. Light in the housing environment suppresses the effects of both DA and OA, but in different ways. In the case of dopamine, light induces increased expression of an inhibitory D2R receptor and in the case of octopamine, the effect is dependent on the circadian clock (Per.)

Using a fluorescence resonance energy transfer (FRET)‐based cyclic AMP reporter expressed in all 18 Pdf neurons, we were able to see robust responses to both octopamine and dopamine in only the t0 l‐LNvs, confirming the mRNA result. To verify that the l‐LNvs are in fact in close apposition to presynaptic octopaminergic and dopaminergic neurons, we looked for reconstitution of a split GFP protein between pre- and post‐synaptic cells. With different GFP fragments expressed at the membrane of the l‐LNvs and presynaptic dopaminergic or octopaminergic neurons, reconstituted GFP would only be visible if these cell populations were in close contact. Reconstituted GFP was seen in both cases around l‐LNv cell bodies and dendritic areas.

To determine the behavioral effect of increased dopaminergic neuron activity on sleep, we transiently hyper‐excited the dopaminergic neurons in flies using the Garrity lab’s heat‐activated dTrpA1 channel. When the housing temperature of flies expressing dTrpA1 in dopaminergic neurons was increased, activating dTrpA1 activity, flies exhibited increased wakefulness. Interestingly, this increased wakefulness was much greater in flies housed in constant darkness as compared to those housed in light:dark cycling conditions. This suggested that the l‐LNvs are a convergence point for the wakepromoting effects of dopamine and light. FRET analysis confirmed this, showing that the l‐LNv response to both dopamine and octopamine is much weaker in flies kept in light:dark conditions as compared to those kept in constant darkness. We then determined that light causes increased expression of an inhibitory dopamine receptor, resulting in a weaker excitatory response to dopamine by the l‐LNvs. In the case of octopamine, the circadian clock was found to regulate the effects of light. Such plasticity allows flies to maintain similar amounts of total sleep in varying environmental conditions, decreasing the relevance of internally generated wake‐promoting cues, in the presence of stronger environmental cues (light). It will be interesting to see how these results generalize to mammals, since light and dopamine also both promote wakefulness in mammals.

Nature NeuroPod

NeuroPod is Nature‘s (relatively) new podcast featuring interviews with prominent neuroscientists. Professor Eve Marder predicts the future of neuroscience in the November edition, and Professor Leslie Griffith talks about studying sleep in Drosophila in the December edition.

Rise and shine, little fly

Most animals sleep, but why they sleep and how the brain generates sleep is mysterious. In a recent study published in Neuron, postdoc Katherine Parisky and colleagues use genetic tools to manipulate the activity of neurons that control sleep in flies. Their results demonstrate that in the fly sleep is generated by GABAergic inhibition of a small cluster of peptidergic neurons within the circadian clock. Flies carrying mutations in this peptide, PDF, or its receptor, are hypersomnolent, similar to human narcoleptics who have defective signaling by the peptide hypocretin/orexin. These results suggest that the circuit architecture used to control arousal is ancient.

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