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Ions may be in charge of when you sleep and wake

Potassium spike in the brain, not nerve activity, causes eye-opening jolt

By
2:00pm, April 28, 2016
a sleepy mouse

ION COCKTAIL Changing levels of certain ions in the brain may lull mice (and probably humans) to sleep and rouse them again, a new study suggests. 

To rewrite an Alanis Morissette song, the brain has a funny way of waking you up (and putting you to sleep). Isn’t it ionic? Some scientists think so.

Changes in ion concentrations, not nerve cell activity, switch the brain from asleep to awake and back again, researchers report in the April 29 Science. Scientists knew that levels of potassium, calcium and magnesium ions bathing brain cells changed during sleep and wakefulness. But they thought neurons — electrically active cells responsible for most of the brain’s processing power — drove those changes.

Instead, the study suggests, neurons aren’t the only sandmen or roosters in the brain. “Neuromodulator” brain chemicals, which pace neuron activity, can bypass neurons altogether to directly wake the brain or lull it to sleep by changing ion concentrations.

Scientists hadn’t

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