Our Brains Would Let Us Walk Around While We Sleep

Great.  Our brains don't shut off even when we sleep.

True, they're used when we're dreaming and also those awful times when we're just drifting off to sleep and jerk awake.  (That's called a hypnic jerk.  See?  You learned something today.)

But I for one always thought that my brain rested at night so it could get ready for rousing my kid out of bed (actually, fighting is more like it), slicing fruit and pouring Cheerios for his breakfast, showering, making sure he's getting dressed, signing on to the computer to see what's going on at work, making sure he's getting dressed, making his lunch (easy -- he eats only Goldfish, go figure), warming up the car, making sure he's getting dressed, and finally, getting him in and driving to school, then to the grocery store, and on to work.

It's amazing I have any brain left at all.

And that doesn't count making sure my husband stops exercising long enough to take the garbage out.

Ah, it's great, being a soccer mom.

Anyway, a new study has found that it's our brain's GPS that never stops working.  Apparently when we're sleeping, our brains still can seek out direction, which, I guess, only helps if you're a sleepwalker.  (Both my husband and son are, but it still doesn't help Larry's sense of direction.)

Turns out the navigational brain cells that help sense direction are as electrically active during deep sleep as they are during wake time — and have visual and spatial updating cues to guide them.

 In experiments involving mice, during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep -- a stage known for intense dreaming activity in humans and during which brain electrical activity is virtually indistinguishable from being awake -- the "'needle" of the brain compass in their brains surprisingly moved at the same speed observed during awakeness.

Even during what's called "slow-wave" periods of sleep, amazingly it was as if the mice turned their heads 10 times faster than during the time they were awake.

“We have long known that the brain is at work during sleep,” says senior study investigator Gyorgy Buzsaki, MD, PhD, the Biggs Professor of Neural Sciences at NYU Langone and its Neuroscience Institute. “But now we know how it is working in one of the seemingly simpler senses — head orientation — or our sense of where we look at in any given space. The direction sense is an essential part of our navigation system, since it can reset our internal compass and maps instantaneously, as, for example, when we emerge from the subway and try to orient ourselves.”

Buzsaki says the brain actively explores and coordinates its operations "even when it disengages from its interactions with the environment.” In other words, our brains are wide awake even as we sleep.

He says the findings indicate that brains in mammals do not passively wait around to receive sensory inputs, but actively pursue them, just like the active sense of head turning that persisted in the mice during sleep.

So the next time someone's sleeping near you, realize they're not really out.  They can still sense you sneaking to the refrigerator door open at midnight.  Okay.  You caught me.  


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