Fatal familial insomnia or FFI, is the inability to sleep and is an awful disease which is made even worse by the fact that we know so little about it. After years of study, researchers have found that in a patient with FFI, malformed proteins called ‘prions’ attack the thalamus, a structure deep in the brain, and that a damaged thalamus actually interferes with sleep. But researchers aren’t sure why this happens or how to stop it.
Before FFI was investigated, most researchers didn’t know that the thalamus had anything to do with sleep. FFI is very rare and is only known in 40 families worldwide but it’s a lot like the less serious kinds of insomnia plaguing millions of people today.
The patients suffering with FFI don’t seem to live long enough, so we can figure out what the issues are. Scientists aren’t sure what kills them. Do they literally die from lack of sleep and if not, how does sleeplessness contribute to the conditions that kill them? Some researchers have found that sleep deprivation impedes wound healing in rats, and others have suggested that sleep helps boost the immune system and control infection. But these studies are not conclusive.
We know that seven to nine hours after falling asleep, most of us are ready to get up again then 15 to 17 hours later we get tired again. For 50 years we’ve known that we divide our sleep between periods of deep-wave sleep and what is called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when the brain is as active as when we’re awake, but our voluntary muscles are paralyzed.
All mammals and birds sleep and dolphins sleep with half its brain awake so it can remain aware of its underwater environment. When mallard ducks sleep in a line, the two outermost birds are able to keep half of their brains alert and one eye open to guard against predators. Fish, reptiles, and insects also experience some kind of rest too.
So how does sleeping help the brain? The answer might depend on what kind of sleep you are talking about. Researchers at Harvard led by Robert Stickgold tested undergraduates on different aptitude tests, then they took a nap and were tested again when they woke up. They found that those who had experienced REM sleep were better in pattern recognition tasks, such as grammar, while those who experienced deep sleep were better at memorization. Other researchers have found that a sleeping brain repeats a pattern of neuron firing that occurs when the subject wakes up, as if the brain were trying to commit to long-term memory of what it had learned that day while sleeping.
Some studies show that the sleeping brain seems to weed out unnecessary synapses or connections. So the purpose of sleep may be to help us remember what’s important, by letting us forget what’s not.
You could just need a new mattress like an adjustable bed for low back support or you may need to talk to your doctor if you are constantly losing sleep.