The new science behind REM sleep

'Butterfly wing' neurons control the most important part of the sleep cycle.

Tags: Sleep

Sleeping Man
Sleeping Man

If you are looking for a way to better understand how you enter into a deep sleep at night, it is time that you paid more attention to REM. This refers to Rapid Eye Movement and it has long been a topic of interest amongst the leading sleep researchers in the world. This is the stage of sleep where most of our dreams take place, and it is also how we end up achieving that restful night of sleep that we all look forward to. Unfortunately, the exact function of REM and how we get there has largely remained a mystery. It appears that this is all about to change. Researchers at two European universities have finally located the very nerve cells that are behind REM, so progress is finally being made in this area of science.

Neurons Are Key
We have long known that REM is characterized by a deep sleep. It is connected directly with a certain level of brain activity that actually simulates how we act when we are awake. This is why the eyes move so rapidly when we are sleeping at this stage. REM was actually first discovered back in the 1950s by a team of researchers from France and America. However, the last 70 years have not brought scientists much closer to determining the exact mystery of REM and how it functions.

A team of researchers from the Universities of Bern and Freiburg has been studying a series of neurons for several years now. They have long believed that this would provide them with the scientific breakthrough that they have been looking for when it comes to understanding REM. It appears that they may have been correct. These neurons are present in the stem of the brain and resemble the wings on a butterfly. This team has found out these are the very neurons that are responsible for various nerve centers that control the rapid eye movement we notice in people who are in a deep sleep. Since they located that, the researchers began studying the neurons to determine just what function they played in determining a person's ability to control their eye movements during sleep.

The Nucleus Papilio
These neurons have been coined nucleus Papilio and have been found to cause rapid eye movement when they are activated. This is especially noticeable during one particular phase of sleep. If the neuron becomes blocked or otherwise eliminated, then the eyes will not experience the same type of movement. When a person does not enter the dream phase of their sleep, one will likely notice that their eyes are no longer moving rapidly. This would be directly attributed to the nucleus Papilio. This is groundbreaking science because we now are able to study exactly what leads to REM and how it affects our normal sleep patterns.

What Does This All Mean?

The research is not over. While the team now understands the very neurons that lead to rapid eye movement (and how it affects our other brain functions) it is their core objective moving forward to determine what exact function this plays in our ability to enter a dream state while we are sleeping. Researchers want to determine if this helps us to preserve our memories and if these particular neurons can help us to better understand certain diseases of a degenerative nature, such as Parkinson's. That is where the science behind this research will take us next.