We are sleep researchers, Bill and Wei, looking at why we sleep, what happens in our brains when we sleep (and when we don’t!). Specifically, we’re investigating potential links to stress and Alzheimer’s disease. Ask us anything!
Hi Reddit! Bill and Wei here. This AMA is part of #ImperialLates - this month exploring the science of wellbeing. See the full programme here.
We are researchers at Imperial College London and our lab’s central focus is understanding how, and why, we sleep. All terrestrial mammals sleep, and it is clear that sleep is essential for a healthy life, as well as being essential for life itself. Yet the most fundamental questions about sleep remain unresolved, possibly rendering it an afterthought for wellbeing with diet and exercise taking precedence. We are using molecular genetics and behavioural analysis in mice to address the following research questions:
Why do we sleep?
One of the great mysteries of neuroscience is why we spend 30% of our lives in a state of vulnerable inactivity - sleep. What are the essential benefits that it provides? We are investigating an overlap that we have discovered between brain circuitry that drives sleep (particularly REM sleep) and circuitry that responds to stress. It's been proposed that one of the possible reasons we need REM sleep is to mitigate the effects of stressful experiences during waking. However, the brain circuits that might explain the connection between sleep and stress have not been identified. We are investigating such circuits in the hope that this will provide one of the reasons sleep is so necessary for a healthy life.
What drives us to sleep when we are sleep deprived?
The longer we do without sleep, the pressure to sleep builds inexorably until we are compelled to do so, pointing to sleep’s vital function. We have identified, and are studying, brain circuits in mice that respond to sleep deprivation and drive sleep when reactivated.
Does poor sleep cause neurological illness like Alzheimer’s disease?
Neurological illness, and conditions that lead to dementia, are growing in our society. Many, if not all, neurological disorders exhibit sleep disturbances at an early stage in disease progression. But now, many neuroscientists propose that the connection between sleep and neurological illness may work both ways and that poor sleep might actually cause, as well as exacerbate, the illness. We are investigating if this is true, looking at how sleep affects the presence of brain toxins, such as beta amyloids, which are associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Our work is funded by Wellcome and the UK Dementia Research Institute. During this AMA we would love to answer any questions you have about our research or the neurological underpinnings of sleep. We'll be here 4-6 PM UK time today!
Dr Wei Ba is a postdoctoral researcher looking at how our brains regulate sleep. She works in the Franks-Wisden lab which is co-led by Professor Bill Wisden.