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Understanding Sleep Paralysis

In your dreams, you’re the star of your own movie—and your subconscious often has you performing stunts that would put Tom Cruise to shame. But even if you’re swinging around the top of the Burj Khalifa in your dream, you stay put in real life. This is thanks to a little thing called sleep paralysis, which keeps you locked in place while you slumber so you don’t hurt yourself. Until recently, scientists understood little about how sleep paralysis works; figuring it out could shed light on disorders such as narcolepsy and REM sleep disorder, and researchers at the University of Toronto might be close to understanding how the phenomenon occurs.

For healthy people, sleep paralysis occurs during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, and they are blissfully unaware that it’s even happening. But for some narcoleptics, falling asleep or waking up makes sleep paralysis kick in, creating a terrifying state where the mind is awake, but the body cannot move. The paralysis can last several seconds or even minutes, with rare cases lasting for hours.

To get a better understanding of what causes sleep paralysis in REM, Patricia Brooks and John Peever at the University of Toronto monitored the electrical activity in rats’ facial muscles, triggered by trigeminal motor neurons sending messages to the brain (basically, they looked at what causes sleeping rats to chew while asleep). In an effort to stop sleep paralysis, they blocked the neurotransmitters they thought were responsible for the phenomenon—ionotropic GABAA/glycine receptors—but sleep paralysis still occurred. Next, Peever and Brooks tried blocking the GABAA/glycine ionotropic receptors and the metabotropic GABAB—which did, in fact, stop sleep paralysis, meaning that both gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glycine must be present and working together to cause sleep paralysis.

“Understanding the precise mechanism behind these chemicals’ role in REM sleep disorder is particularly important because about 80 percent of people who have it eventually develop a neurodegenerative disease, such as Parkinson’s disease,” Peever says. “REM sleep behavior disorder could be an early marker of these diseases, and curing it may help prevent or even stop their development.”

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The Prehistoric Bacteria That Helped Create Our Cells Billions of Years Ago
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We owe the existence of our cells—the very building blocks of life—to a chance relationship between bacteria that occurred more than 2 billion years ago. Flash back to Bio 101, and you might remember that humans, plants, and animals have complex eukaryotic cells, with nucleus-bound DNA, instead of single-celled prokaryotic cells. These contain specialized organelles such as the mitochondria—the cell’s powerhouse—and the chloroplast, which converts sunlight into sugar in plants.

Mitochondria and chloroplasts both look and behave a lot like bacteria, and they also share similar genes. This isn’t a coincidence: Scientists believe these specialized cell subunits are descendants of free-living prehistoric bacteria that somehow merged together to form one. Over time, they became part of our basic biological units—and you can learn how by watching PBS Eons’s latest video below.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Buckingham Palace Was Built With Jurassic Fossils, Scientists Find
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The UK's Buckingham Palace is a vestige from another era, and not just because it was built in the early 18th century. According to a new study, the limestone used to construct it is filled with the fossilized remains of microbes from the Jurassic period of 200 million years ago, as The Telegraph reports.

The palace is made of oolitic limestone, which consists of individual balls of carbonate sediment called ooids. The material is strong but lightweight, and is found worldwide. Jurassic oolite has been used to construct numerous famous buildings, from those in the British city of Bath to the Empire State Building and the Pentagon.

A new study from Australian National University published in Scientific Reports found that the spherical ooids in Buckingham Palace's walls are made up of layers and layers of mineralized microbes. Inspired by a mathematical model from the 1970s for predicting the growth of brain tumors, the researchers created a model that explains how ooids are created and predicts the factors that limit their ultimate size.

A hand holding a chunk of oolite limestone
Australian National University

They found that the mineralization of the microbes forms the central core of the ooid, and the layers of sediment that gather around that core feed those microbes until the nutrients can no longer reach the core from the outermost layer.

This contrasts with previous research on how ooids form, which hypothesized that they are the result of sediment gathered from rolling on the ocean floor. It also reshapes how we think about the buildings made out of oolitic limestone from this period. Next time you look up at the Empire State Building or Buckingham Palace, thank the ancient microbes.

[h/t The Telegraph]

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