Sleep has many roles, from strengthening new memories to regulating mood and appetite. While we might instinctively think of sleep as a uniform state of reduced brain activity, the reality is more complex. First, over the course of the night, we cycle between a number of different sleep stages, which reflect different levels of sleep depth. Second, the amount of sleep depth is not necessarily even across the brain but can vary between regions.
These sleep stages consist of either rapid eye movement (REM) sleep or non-REM (NREM) sleep. REM sleep is when most dreaming occurs, whereas NREM sleep is particularly important for learning and memory and can vary in duration and depth. During NREM sleep, large groups of neurons synchronize their firing to create rhythmic waves of activity known as slow waves. The more synchronous the activity, the deeper the sleep.
Vaidyanathan et al. now show that brain cells called astrocytes help regulate NREM sleep. Astrocytes are not neurons but belong to a group of specialized cells called glia. They are the largest glia cell type in the brain and display an array of proteins on their surfaces called G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). These enable them to sense sleep-wake signals from other parts of the brain and to generate their own signals. In fact, each astrocyte can communicate with thousands of neurons at once. They are therefore well-poised to coordinate brain activity during NREM sleep.
Using innovative tools, Vaidyanathan et al. visualized astrocyte activity in mice as the animals woke up or fell asleep. The results showed that astrocytes change their activity just before each sleep–wake transition. They also revealed that astrocytes control both the depth and duration of NREM sleep via two different types of GPCR signals. Increasing one of these signals (Gi-GPCR) made the mice sleep more deeply but did not change sleep duration. Decreasing the other (Gq-GPCR) made the mice sleep for longer but did not affect sleep depth.
Sleep problems affect many people at some point in their lives, and often co-exist with other conditions such as mental health disorders. Understanding how the brain regulates different features of sleep could help us develop better – and perhaps more specific – treatments for sleep disorders. The current study suggests that manipulating GPCRs on astrocytes might increase sleep depth, for example. But before work to test this idea can begin, we must first determine whether findings from sleeping mice also apply to people.