My Q and A With Patrick Fuller on How Neuroscience Can Unlock Sleep’s Mysteries

Patrick Fuller is a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School’s esteemed Division of Sleep Medicine. In answer to my questions, he shared his insights on the importance of good sleep hygiene, how our brain’s clock is connected to our overall well-being, and the problem with sleeping pills.

What have you found in your research on the “neurocircuit basis” that supports sleep?

In specific reference to our recent work on the brainstem slow-wave-sleep promoter “center,” we showed that this region of the brain is first connected (synaptically) to an important wake-promoting region of the brainstem that in turn is connected with important wake-promoting circuitry of the forebrain, which itself connects to the cerebral cortex. Essentially, we provided a circuit “wiring diagram” by which activation of brainstem sleep-promoting neurons might produce “whole brain” sleep. The reason I emphasize the word “neurocircuit” in our work is because I believe that in order to understand how the brain accomplishes virtually anything, one must first understand the functional cellular and synaptic “scaffolding” from which brain phenomena emerge.

Tell me about how circadian regulation affects our sleep and wakeful consciousness.

So it all starts (and ends!) with a little biological clock in our brain. The so-called “master” circadian clock is actually a collection of neurons located in a small region of the hypothalamus, itself a very small structure. (In humans, the hypothalamus is about the size of an almond.) This clock is remarkable for many reasons, perhaps most notably that no other region of the brain can assume its function if/when it is damaged. The clock’s fundamental role is to keep us “synchronized” with the Earth’s light-dark cycle as well as keep our body’s internal rhythms synchronized with one another. And we now know that proper external and internal synchronization is fundamental to our physical and mental well-being. A —> Read More