New sleep research has unveiled surprising links between the brain and the gut. Sleep holds paramount importance among human activities — its deficiency even for a single night can impede our cognitive functions, responsiveness, and overall daily performance. Despite its critical role in health and survival, the scientific understanding of sleep remains incomplete.
Enter Dragana Rogulja, a neurobiologist on a quest to unravel the basic biology of sleep.
As a self-described latecomer to science, Rogulja found herself drawn to questions she considers "broadly interesting and easy to understand on a basic human level."
One of these questions…What happens when we sleep?
For Rogulja, an associate professor of neurobiology in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School, an intriguing aspect of sleep is the loss of consciousness and awareness it brings, as the outside world disappears and the inner world takes over.
In a conversation with Harvard Medicine News, Rogulja delved into the details of her sleep research, which uses fruit flies and mice to explore why we need to sleep and how we disconnect from the world during sleep.
Harvard Medicine News: What are you studying in the context of sleep?
Rogulja: There are two main questions that my lab has been pursuing for the past several years. The first is why sleep is necessary for survival. Why is it that if you don't sleep, you will literally die after not too long? The other question is how your brain disconnects from the environment when you fall asleep.
How are stimuli prevented from reaching your brain during sleep? Elevating the threshold for sensory arousal is essential for sleep, and we want to understand how that barrier is built around the brain. Sleep is one unified state, but it seems to have multiple components that are regulated through separate mechanisms. We want to understand those mechanisms.
HMNews: How has your research changed how you think about sleep?
Rogulja: For a long time, sleep has been considered as a passive state where nothing much happens. But now we know that sleep is an active process, and the brain engages in a variety of functions during this state. It's not just about rest and recovery; it's also about memory consolidation, learning, and even creativity. Sleep is intricately connected to brain health and function.
Recently, our research has also uncovered a surprising link between sleep and the gut. We have found that sleep deprivation can lead to changes in the gut microbiome, the community of microorganisms living in our digestive system. These changes can have implications for our overall health, including our metabolism and immune function.
This connection between sleep and the gut is fascinating and opens up new avenues of research. It highlights the importance of considering sleep not just in isolation but as part of a larger network of physiological processes within the body.
HMNews: What are the potential implications of your research for human health?
Rogulja: Understanding the basic biology of sleep and the intricate connections between sleep, the brain, and the gut can have significant implications for human health. Sleep disorders are prevalent and can have profound effects on individuals' well-being and quality of life.
By uncovering the underlying mechanisms of sleep and how it impacts various aspects of our health, we can develop better strategies for diagnosing and treating sleep disorders. It may also shed light on other conditions that are influenced by sleep, such as neurological disorders and metabolic diseases.
Furthermore, the link between sleep and the gut suggests that interventions targeting the gut microbiome may have a role in improving sleep quality and overall well-being. This opens up new possibilities for therapeutic interventions and personalized approaches to promote healthy sleep.
In conclusion, the research being conducted by Dr. Dragana Rogulja and her team is shedding light on the intricate connections between sleep, the brain, and the gut. By unraveling the mysteries of sleep, we can gain a deeper understanding of its importance and explore new avenues for improving sleep health and overall well-being.