Researchers, led by one of Indian-origin, have found that the melatonin hormone promotes sleep by suppressing the neurons responsible for keeping us awake, a discovery that may lead to new therapy for insomnia.
"We as a society are losing sleep because we are working too hard, and it's causing a variety of health concerns," said lead author Mahesh Thakkar from the University of Missouri.
"We often don't even think about sleep or consider it important. However, there is nothing more important than sleep. We need to focus on therapies that can help you have quality sleep, not just sleep," Thakkar added.
In the study, published in Journal of Pineal Research, the team used a mouse model and found that when melatonin is infused in the brain of an awake and active mouse at dark, it increased sleep and reduced its activeness by suppressing certain specific neurons that stimulate the brain to stay awake.
It also showed that blocking melatonin receptors in the brain during bedtime, increased wakefulness.
The experiments focused on a receptor, MT1, as the mechanism using which melatonin acts to inhibit the specific orexin neurons that wake you up.
This discovery may also help developing medications that target only the MT1 receptor instead of multiple receptors, which could lead to fewer side effects for those who take sleep-promoting drugs.
"Melatonin has been used as a sleep drug for many years, but people didn't know how it worked. Our research suggests that if you target the melatonin MT1 receptor, you will get the most sleep with minimal side effects," Thakkar explained.