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How Your Brain Fights Sleep Even When You're Exhausted

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Maybe you’ve got an exam in the morning, or there’s just one more episode left in this season. Whatever the reason, tonight you ignore your body’s demands and stay up instead. It’s an impressive feat, if you think about it—sleep is essential—and now scientists may be closer to understanding how we do it. They published a report on their findings in the journal Neuron.

There’s a little section of your brainstem called the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN). This region is responsible for making serotonin and other brain chemicals.

Lead researcher Viviana Gradinaru of Caltech says previous studies have also suggested that the dorsal raphe nucleus plays a role in helping keep us awake.

"People who have damage in this part of their brain have been shown to experience excessive daytime sleepiness,” she said in a statement, “but there was not a good understanding of the exact role of these neurons in the sleep/wake cycle and whether they react to internal or external stimuli to influence arousal."

Within the dorsal raphe nucleus lies a little-understood group of dopamine cells called the dorsal raphe nucleus neurons (DRNDA).

Color image of dorsal raphe nucleus neurons
Dorsal raphe nucleus neurons responding to light (green) and chemical (red) signals.
Viviana Gradinaru

Gradinaru and her colleagues wanted to know if voluntary wakefulness had anything to do with dopamine activity within these cells. They started by studying mouse brains, which are similar to our own in many ways.

The researchers monitored the rodents’ DRNDA action while the mice were fed, met new potential mates, or experienced sudden unpleasant sensations—all experiences for which the mice would want or need to stay awake. Throughout the experiences, the mice’s DRNDA cells kept very busy, sending bursts of dopamine to other parts of the brain.

Next, the scientists tracked DRNDA cell activity as the mice slept and woke. They found that the cells seemed to sleep when the mice did, and revved up when the mice got up.

So far, the researchers knew that the sleeping mouse/sleeping neurons and waking mouse/waking neurons pairs existed, but they couldn’t tell if the neurons caused the waking or vice versa.

To find out, they engineered DRNDA cells that could be switched on and off by light. They then bred mice with these light-sensitive cells and let them sleep. As the mice snoozed, the researchers switched on the lights and their DRNDA cells using a technique called optogenetics. Sure enough, the mice woke up.

Shutting off DRNDA cells had the opposite effect: Mice with no DRNDA activity couldn’t keep their eyes open, even when faced with danger, loud noises, or the possibility of mating.

The authors note that their experiments included only mice, and that it’s too soon to draw conclusions about what this might mean for people.

“Further work is necessary to establish causation in humans,” Gradinaru said, “and to test the potential of the DRNDA as a therapeutic target for insomnia or oversleeping, and for sleep disturbances that accompany other psychiatric disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia."

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New Images of the Massive Iceberg That Broke Off From Antarctica This Summer
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NASA/Nathan Kurtz

This summer, a massive crack finally broke apart Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf, creating one of the world’s largest icebergs, called A-68. NASA has taken plenty of satellite images of the area, but now, thanks to flights by the agency’s Operation IceBridge, we have close-ups too, as The Washington Post reports.

Operation IceBridge is NASA’s project to survey and map the status of polar ice via plane. The project is running several survey missions out of Argentina and from scientific bases at the South Pole this fall, using gravimeters, magnetometers, and other sensors to measure changes in polar ice. They have taken a few flights so far that passed over Larsen C, the most recent leaving from Ushuaia, Argentina, on November 12.

The sheer edge of A-68 leads into blue ocean
The edge of A-68
NASA/Nathan Kurtz

Aerial IceBridge photos taken in the last few weeks show the massive size of the ice shelf and the iceberg it calved this summer. "Most icebergs I have seen appear relatively small and blocky, and the entire part of the berg that rises above the ocean surface is visible at once,” Kathryn Hansen, a member of NASA’s news team, wrote on NASA’s Earth Observatory blog after seeing A-68 for herself on the most recent IceBridge flight. “Not this berg. A-68 is so expansive it appears [as] if it were still part of the ice shelf.”

NASA tweeted out these incredible images from IceBridge's October 31 flight earlier this month.

An aerial photo of an ice shelf and the iceberg it calved
The ice on the left is the Larsen C ice shelf; the right, the western edge of A-68.
NASA/Nathan Kurtz

An aerial view of sea ice, blue water, and the edge of iceberg A68
A view across sea ice toward A-68
NASA/Nathan Kurtz

The November 12 flight was aimed at mapping the bedrock below the polar ice with NASA’s gravimeter, but the scientists still have more research planned. Additional IceBridge flights will be leaving from Antarctica later this month, collecting data with different instruments than the flights that left out of Argentina.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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Space
8 Useful Facts About Uranus
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Uranus as seen by the human eye (left) and with colored filters (right).
NASA/JPL

The first planet to be discovered by telescope, Uranus is the nearest of the two "ice giants" in the solar system. Because we've not visited in over 30 years, much of the planet and its inner workings remain unknown. What scientists do know, however, suggests a mind-blowing world of diamond rain and mysterious moons. Here is what you need to know about Uranus.

1. ITS MOONS ARE NAMED AFTER CHARACTERS FROM LITERATURE.

Uranus is the seventh planet from the Sun, the fourth largest by size, and ranks seventh by density. (Saturn wins as least-dense.) It has 27 known moons, each named for characters from the works of William Shakespeare and Alexander Pope. It is about 1784 million miles from the Sun (we're 93 million miles away from the Sun, or 1 astronomical unit), and is four times wider than Earth. Planning a trip? Bring a jacket, as the effective temperature of its upper atmosphere is -357°F. One Uranian year last 84 Earth years, which seems pretty long, until you consider one Uranian day, which lasts 42 Earth years. Why?

2. IT ROTATES UNIQUELY.

Most planets, as they orbit the Sun, rotate upright, spinning like tops—some faster, some slower, but top-spinning all the same. Not Uranus! As it circles the Sun, its motion is more like a ball rolling along its orbit. This means that for each hemisphere of the planet to go from day to night, you need to complete half an orbit: 42 Earth years. (Note that this is not the length of a complete rotation, which takes about 17.25 hours.) While nobody knows for sure what caused this 98-degree tilt, the prevailing hypothesis involves a major planetary collision early in its history. And unlike Earth (but like Venus!), it rotates east to west.

3. SO ABOUT THAT NAME …

You might have noticed that every non-Earth planet in the solar system is named for a Roman deity. (Earth didn't make the cut because when it was named, nobody knew it was a planet. It was just … everything.) There is an exception to the Roman-god rule: Uranus. Moving outward from Earth, Mars is (sometimes) the son of Jupiter, and Jupiter is the son of Saturn. So who is Saturn's father? Good question! In Greek mythology, it is Ouranos, who has no precise equivalent in Roman mythology (Caelus is close), though his name was on occasion Latinized by poets as—you guessed it!—Uranus. So to keep things nice and tidy, Uranus it was when finally naming this newly discovered world. Little did astronomers realize how greatly they would disrupt science classrooms evermore.

Incidentally, it is not pronounced "your anus," but rather, "urine us" … which is hardly an improvement.

4. IT IS ONE OF ONLY TWO ICE GIANTS.

Uranus and Neptune comprise the solar system's ice giants. (Other classes of planets include the terrestrial planets, the gas giants, and the dwarf planets.) Ice giants are not giant chunks of ice in space. Rather, the name refers to their formation in the interstellar medium. Hydrogen and helium, which only exist as gases in interstellar space, formed planets like Jupiter and Saturn. Silicates and irons, meanwhile, formed places like Earth. In the interstellar medium, molecules like water, methane, and ammonia comprise an in-between state, able to exist as gases or ices depending on the local conditions. When those molecules were found by Voyager to have an extensive presence in Uranus and Neptune, scientists called them "ice giants."

5. IT'S A HOT MYSTERY.

Planets form hot. A small planet can cool off and radiate away heat over the age of the solar system. A large planet cannot. It hasn't cooled enough entirely on the inside after formation, and thus radiates heat. Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune all give off significantly more heat than they receive from the Sun. Puzzlingly, Uranus is different.

"Uranus is the only giant planet that is not giving off significantly more heat than it is receiving from the Sun, and we don't know why that is," says Mark Hofstadter, a planetary scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He tells Mental Floss that Uranus and Neptune are thought to be similar in terms of where and how they formed.

So why is Uranus the only planet not giving off heat? "The big question is whether that heat is trapped on the inside, and so the interior is much hotter than we expect, right now," Hofstadter says. "Or did something happen in its history that let all the internal heat get released much more quickly than expected?"

The planet's extreme tilt might be related. If it were caused by an impact event, it is possible that the collision overturned the innards of the planet and helped it cool more rapidly. "The bottom line," says Hofstadter, "is that we don't know."

6. IT RAINS DIAMONDS BIGGER THAN GRIZZLY BEARS.

Although it's really cold in the Uranian upper atmosphere, it gets really hot, really fast as you reach deeper. Couple that with the tremendous pressure in the Uranian interior, and you get the conditions for literal diamond rain. And not just little rain diamondlets, either, but diamonds that are millions of carats each—bigger than your average grizzly bear. Note also that this heat means the ice giants contain relatively little ice. Surrounding a rocky core is what is thought to be a massive ocean—though one unlike you might find on Earth. Down there, the heat and pressure keep the ocean in an "in between" state that is highly reactive and ionic.

7. IT HAS A BAKER'S DOZEN OF BABY RINGS.

Unlike Saturn's preening hoops, the 13 rings of Uranus are dark and foreboding, likely comprised of ice and radiation-processed organic material. The rings are made more of chunks than of dust, and are probably very young indeed: something on the order of 600 million years old. (For comparison, the oldest known dinosaurs roamed the Earth 240 million years ago.)

8. WE'VE BEEN THERE BEFORE AND WILL BE BACK.

The only spacecraft to ever visit Uranus was NASA's Voyager 2 in 1986, which discovered 10 new moons and two new rings during its single pass from 50,000 miles up. Because of the sheer weirdness and wonder of the planet, scientists have been itching to return ever since. Some questions can only be answered with a new spacecraft mission. Key among them: What is the composition of the planet? What are the interactions of the solar wind with the magnetic field? (That's important for understanding various processes such as the heating of the upper atmosphere and the planet's energy deposition.) What are the geological details of its satellites, and the structure of the rings?

The Voyager spacecraft gave scientists a peek at the two ice giants, and now it's time to study them up close and in depth. Hofstadter compares the need for an ice-giants mission to what happened after the Voyagers visited Jupiter and Saturn. NASA launched Galileo to Jupiter in 1989 and Cassini to Saturn in 1997. (Cassini was recently sent on a suicide mission into Saturn.) Those missions arrived at their respective systems and proved transformative to the field of planetary science.

"Just as we had to get a closer look at Europa and Enceladus to realize that there are potentially habitable oceans there, the Uranus and Neptune systems can have similar things," says Hofstadter. "We'd like to go there and see them up close. We need to go into the system." 

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