Compared with giraffes, which zonk out for just 30 minutes a day, or dolphins, which rest only one-half of their brains at a time, I—who will gleefully luxuriate in nine hours of shut-eye now and then—am basically a lump who occasionally has wakeful moments.Turns out I still might have a chance. “Sleep is so critical for so many parts of our body and our mind,” says Aric Prather, a sleep scientist at UCSF. It strengthens the immune system and helps regulate metabolism. It can clear out toxins that build up in the brain and prevent neurodegenerative diseases. “Sleep is like the dishwasher of the brain,” Prather explains in WIRED’s latest “Five Levels ” video.
Rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep—the phase during which we dream—usually gets the most hype. But Prather says all phases, from the lightest slumber to the deepest unconsciousness, are important processes that allow our brains and bodies to recover from the previous day and can help us learn and remember information better.Getting rest isn’t always as simple as climbing into bed and shutting off the lights. Circadian rhythms, hormones like melatonin, and even the neurotransmitter dopamine play a role. There’s still a lot scientists don’t understand about what happens when we drift off, but the more we learn, the more important sleep becomes .
Lewis outfitted the participants with an EEG cap so she could look at the electrical currents flowing through their brains.“It’s a fantastic paper,” says Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester who led the 2013 study that first described how sleep can clear out toxins in mice.
Whether a cause or a symptom, abnormal sleep plays a role in diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Measuring disturbed sleep could be one way to detect the onset of neurodegenerative diseases. Eventually, medicines that help promote more natural sleep cycles could help treat those very diseases. “I’m excited about the future of sleep medicine,” says Prather. Instead of thinking of sleep as a nuisance, maybe we’ll start finally seeing it for what it actually is: a necessity.Check out the video above. You can also watch the full series on WIRED’s free app for Roku, Apple TV, Android TV and Amazon Fire TV.
After Walker’s talk, he was mobbed by acolytes in the conference center desperate to tell him how much his book—which covers the same topic as his TED talk—changed their lives, how they’d given up caffeine and alcohol and stopped feeling bad for leaving parties early to get sleep or refusing to look at work emails in bed.
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