Why do we find it harder to sleep well as we age

(ORDO NEWS) — A group of American scientists found out how the brain circuits involved in the regulation of sleep and wakefulness degrade in mice over time. According to them, this work will allow the development of effective remedies for insomnia for people.

“More than half of people aged 65 and older complain about the quality of their sleep,” says Stanford University professor Luis de Lecea.

Research has shown that sleep problems are linked to other health problems, from hypertension to heart attacks, diabetes, depression, and the buildup of brain plaque associated with Alzheimer’s.

Insomnia is often treated with a class of drugs known as sleeping pills, which include Ambien (zolpiden) tablets, but these do not work very well for older people.

In a new study, scientists have turned their attention to hypocretins, or orexins, key brain chemicals that are generated by a small cluster of neurons in the brain’s hypothalamus, the region located between the eyes and ears. Of the billions of neurons in the brain, only about 50,000 produce hypocretins.

Previously, De Lesea and other scientists discovered that hypocretins transmit signals that play a vital role in stabilizing wakefulness.

Since fragmented sleep in old age has been found not only in humans, but also in many other animal species, scientists suggest that the same mechanisms are at work in mammals. In addition, previous studies have shown that degradation of hypocretins leads to narcolepsy in humans, dogs, and mice.

The team selected young (three to five months old) and old mice (18 to 22 months old) and stimulated specific neurons in the mice with light. They recorded the results using imaging techniques.

The researchers found that older mice lost approximately 38 percent of hypocretins compared to younger mice. They also found that the hypocretins left in the older mice were more excitable and easily triggered, making the animals more likely to wake up during sleep.

The scientists say this may be due to a deterioration in “potassium channels,” which are biological switches critical to the function of many cell types.

The authors of the work indicate that their findings could help in the creation of sleeping pills that target a specific channel. In the next step, they want to take a closer look at the properties of a drug known as retigabine. It is currently intended for the treatment of epilepsy and targets a similar pathway.

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