As Socrates realized long ago, the more we learn, the more we find we don’t know. In spite of extraordinary advances in scientific knowledge, much remains to be learned and discovered. James Krueger, in the Department of Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, Pharmacology, and Physiology at WSU, contemplates one of the most perplexing unanswered questions.

James Krueger writes:

The most striking feature of sleep is the regulated loss of consciousness. This puts one at great risk. For example, if you are in Central Park at night, would you rather be conscious or unconscious? Sleep is maladaptive unless a greater need is served. All animals with complex ganglia or brains sleep. Thus, sleep must have a very robust adaptive value. Modern theories of sleep function focus on the microcircuitry of the brain. The exact connections between your neurons change daily in response to experience. Yet you retain your genetically encrypted behaviors and learned memories. A key problem facing the brain is how to integrate new network firing patterns into its existing networks, which already have useful adaptive functional value sculpted by genes and prior experience. We propose that sleep serves this function.

What exactly does Jim Krueger do?

Krueger’s laboratory focuses on two basic questions: “What are the biochemical mechanisms of sleep?” and “How does sleep relate to infectious disease?”

Krueger estimates that the total number of genes involved in sleep regulation is in the hundreds—though the really important ones are probably among 15 already identified. Krueger studies the relationship between these genes, the neurochemicals they express, and sleep.

Krueger’s lab also looks at the effect of infectious disease (caused by microorganisms) on sleep.

Together with Ken Campbell, also of VCAPP, Krueger is developing a mathematical model of the brain and how it goes to sleep.

What this research means for you.

First, sleep is probably central to how the nervous system works and is linked closely to emotion, cognition, memory, consciousness, and other functions.

Also, sleep research could help us address the problem of NOT sleeping. An estimated 30 percent of people suffer significant insomnia on occasion.

Finally, it promises to solve the basic mystery of why we sleep.

The big picture.

The world of sleep research and sleep medicine was very small 25 years ago, with perhaps 15 sleep clinics in the country and an equal number of research labs devoted to the basic science of sleep research.

Now there are more than 1,400 sleep clinics, largely due to the realization that sleep disorders are related to physical and mental disorders.

However, far fewer laboratories—perhaps 20 worldwide—are actually devoted to the very difficult question of biochemical function. The number concentrating on the relationship between sleep and infectious disease is smaller yet—maybe five—because the problem requires the rare combination of expertise in both microbiology and neurobiology.

The race is on!

A testable theory of sleep had yet to be developed 15 years ago. Now several of them, including Krueger’s, are competing for primacy. Krueger believes researchers will be able to prove the secret of sleep within 10 years.

Sleep theories vary. Krueger’s holds that sleep helps consolidate memory and restore the synaptic order that makes you you. Francis Crick of double-helix fame believes sleep helps us forget.

Regardless, most researchers believe sleep is related somehow to plasticity, the ability of the brain to adapt and rearrange itself. The trick, says Krueger, is specifying the function—and proving it to the world. The person who does this, he says, will probably win a Nobel.