A: It's evolution, baby
I’ve just returned from a mind-blowing trip to Stanford University, five days of back-to-back interviews with some of the most important figures in sleep research. It’ll all be in the book. This was made possible by a generous grant from The Society of Authors.
I got to meet William Dement, a legend in the field of sleep medicine and the reason why Stanford has such a high concentration of great doctors and researchers interested in sleep. I spent several delightful hours in the company of Christian Guilleminault, less well known than Dement but, in my view, an equal partner in the Stanford adventure.
Emmanuel Mignot (aka Dr Narcolepsy) gave me almost three hours of his time on President’s Day to talk through his work on the genetics and immunology of narcolepsy and more recent research on the genetics of Kleine-Levin Syndrome. He brought with him his dog Watson, a cute narcoleptic Chihuahua.
I met Samantha Lundquist, an animal behaviourist at the Penninsula Humane Society and owner of three huge dogs (one of them, Charlie, a narcoleptic). Neither dog experienced cataplexy in my company, which I was a little sad about, but I know better than anyone that cataplexy tends to come in the company of friends and not strangers.
I found out about some clever research that Jamie Zeitzer is involved with, using flashing lights to cause rapid shifts in the central circadian clock, which could be of immense benefit for shift-workers and would solve the problem of jetlag overnight. Quite literally.
I had an incredibly exciting time with Luis de Lecea, who was one of the researchers who first described hypocretins almost 20 years ago. He is using optogenetics and mice to understand the hypocretin pathway (and other neural networks). As a consequence he probably knows more about the myriad functions of this powerful neuromodulator than anyone alive. I was anxious that I would come out of this interview more confused than I went in (because the brain is so fiendishly complex) but I now have a very clear idea of the main functions that hypocretin performs, an insight that helps explain much about the narcoleptic condition (caused, of course, by a failure of the hypocretin system).
Using similarly cutting edge methods, Philippe Mourrain made a compelling case for using a simple animal model like the zebrafish to unpick the circuitry underlying sleep (rather than a crazily complex species like Homo sapiens). By tagging neurons with green fluorescent protein and because zebrafish larvae are transparent, it’s possible to see neurons firing in real time in a live animal in parts of the brain that in humans are buried far beneath the thick cortical surface. Yes, although fishes don’t close their eyes (they have no eyelids), they do sleep. They also have what looks like a rapid eye movement phase, except that Mourrain doesn’t like to call it REM because there’s no movement of the eyes. He prefers paradoxical sleep.
I also attended a lecture, part of the famous Sleep and Dreams course that Dement began at Stanford more than 40 years ago. Meir Kryger, who I’ve already interviewed about sleep apnea, was over from Yale University and spoke about the dangers of sleep deprivation and it’s implications for individuals and society.
All I have to do now is to get hours of interviews transcribed and written up while it’s still fresh. Gulp!