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Friday, April 20, 2012

Sleep: The Final Frontier

Today, Tales of Whoa is hosting a guest post from the lovely and talented Shay Fabbro, writer, biologist, and friend of mine.  Her topic?  One of my favorite subjects... sleep.



Such a simple word. And yet so complex.

What is this strange state of consciousness we all face at the setting of the sun? Why do we fall into this limbo each night only to awaken with the rising if the sun?

From an evolutionary standpoint, sleeping seems to fly in the face of what we know to be a positive adaptation that would lead a species to thrive. Humans are not the only animal that falls into slumber. Every single animal on the planet sleeps.

Humans have two different kinds of sleep: non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). We switch between NREM and REM sleep throughout the night. The most vivid dreams occur during REM sleep. I wonder if Stephen King spends more time in REM sleep than normal folks do...

It would seem that the act of sleeping would have been bred out of life forms a long time ago. Think about it: some poor critter lies down for its nightly slumber and gets eaten by a predator! Yikes! And yet sleep is coded into our very DNA, making it something we can’t live without.

We have all experienced the effects of sleep deprivation at some point in our lives, either from studying until the wee hours of the morning, too much partying, having children, staying up too late reading, or my favorite, writing! We have all dealt with the feeling of sluggishness, like we’re in a fog, moving more slowly than we normally would. This can even go on for some small period of time, but it can’t go on indefinitely.

Long-term sleep deprivation has caused death in lab animals as well as people suffering from an extremely rare disease called fatal familial insomnia. A misfolded protein in the brain wreaks havoc with the normal sleep process. The age-of-onset is between 18 and 60 with death occurring 7-36 months after symptoms begin. Patients begin to complain of insomnia, followed by panic attacks, various phobias, and hallucinations. Dementia is the final stage, in which the patient becomes mute and unresponsive. Death follows soon thereafter.

It’s obvious that sleep is necessary for life.

So what exactly happens when we sleep that’s so important?

Well, researchers are not 100% sure about this. It’s thought that perhaps the period of inactivity evolved to actually protect animals against predation. If they are sleeping, and therefore totally still and quiet, this might protect them more so than if they were active. However, many argue that it is safer to remain still AND conscious rather than be in the unconscious state of sleep when danger is around. I tend to agree with this one ;)

Another theory argues that perhaps we sleep in order to conserve energy. If we remain awake and moving around 100% of the time, we would require much greater food sources. Which isn’t a problem in the modern era but for most animals (and humans before we were advanced enough to have Starbucks and Circle K), resources can be limited. They must deal with times of plenty and times of famine. Perhaps sleeping enables them (and us) to conserve energy for 7-10 hours a day.

Another explanation is that we need to sleep to restore and revive our bodies. Sleeping gives us the opportunity to repair cells and whole organs, clean things up. Many of the repairs that occur in our tissues ONLY happen during sleep.

Perhaps the most exciting theory is that we need sleep in order for our brains to this thing called brain plasticity. That’s a fancy word to describe the structural changes that occur in the brain so that we can develop. Learning and memory are directly tied to plasticity. Just think about how you feel foggy, can’t recall info, etc when you are even just a little sleep deprived.

And the most intriguing aspect of sleeping is the act of dreaming. I have suffered night terrors since I was a child and I can tell you that dreams are not all gumdrops and lollypops. My dreams are often terrifying and violent, and always vivid, complete with color, sound, smells. But the ideas for my scifi/fantasy novels as well as the ideas for some disturbing thrillers have come from my dreams. So I guess my nightmares aren’t all bad ;)

Shay Fabbro was born in Longmont, CO and moved to the town of Grand Junction, CO in the early 1980′s. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Mesa State College before earning her doctorate degree in Human Medical Genetics from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, CO.

Dr. Fabbro currently lives in Grand Junction with her husband, Rich, and their two cats. When not writing novels, she teaches biology classes at Mesa State College. She is the author of the Portals of Destiny series and the Adventures of Alexis Davenport series.

For more information on Shay and her novels, please visit her website.

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