HOUSTON – (Nov. 9, 2017) – Simple mistakes appear to be caused by brain cells that fall asleep during the performance of routine tasks, report neuroscientists from The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) in the journal Nature Communications.
Their findings could lead to new treatments for medical conditions associated with decreased alertness such as chronic fatigue syndrome.
“This research provides new insights into fluctuations in the level of alertness,” said Valentin Dragoi, Ph.D., the study’s senior author and professor of neurobiology and anatomy at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “We wanted to figure out how these errors happen.”
To do that, Dragoi’s team conducted an animal study in which they monitored the activity of neurons in the brain’s visual cortex during the performance of a challenging task.
“When you’re asleep or at rest, neurons are highly synchronized. When you perform a task, they become desynchronized,” said Dragoi, the Rochelle and Max Levit Distinguished Professor in the Neurosciences at UTHealth. “We found that groups of neurons appeared to fall asleep during mistakes, and then they quickly recovered.”
Understanding the mechanisms involved in alertness and performance are important steps in developing possible treatments for chronic fatigue syndrome, which affects about a million people in the United States, and sleep disorders, which affect as many as 70 million adults in the United States, he said.
“In principle, you could use this information to enhance the level of alertness,” Dragoi said. “But this is just the beginning. We are hopeful that in the next decade or so we could develop therapeutic solutions to ameliorate chronic fatigue and sleep disorder.”
In the paper, the authors concluded that the extent to which populations of neurons in the visual cortex exhibit synchrony during wakefulness significantly influences the neurons’ capacity to extract information about the environment and the corresponding perceptual accuracy.
Dragoi’s coauthors include Charles Beaman, M.D., Ph.D., and Sarah Eagleman, Ph.D., who are currently continuing their training at Columbia University and Stanford University, respectively. They are both graduates of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. Dragoi is on the Graduate School faculty.
The study, titled “Sensory coding accuracy and perceptual performance are improved during the desynchronized cortical state,” received support the National Eye Institute, the National Institutes of Health EUREKA Program and vision training grants.