Strange But True X: Fish Have Insomnia, Stanford Reports

Self knew it all along, dear blog readers:  she knew she wasn’t the only one in the world with such severe insomnia that she can go to sleep at 3 AM and be up two hours later.  Now, while browsing Stanford website (as she does about once a day), she stumbles upon this article from the Stanford Medical Center, posted 17 October.  And, since self finds it so exceedingly entertaining, she has decided to share it with dear blog readers.

Article was written by one Brian Lee.   Thank you, Brian, for providing self with the answers to such questions as:  a)  How do we know whether a fish floating motionless in a tank of water is really asleep?  and b)  Why are zebra fish better subjects for scientific study than dogs or mice?

Researchers in the School of Medicine have hooked a fish that suffers from insomnia in their quest to understand the genetics behind sleep disorders.

The findings, published in the Oct. 16 issue of the journal Public Library of Science-Biology, show that even zebrafish—a common aquarium pet—can have a genetic mutation linked to sleep problems. The work represents a milestone in sleep research by Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD, who also uncovered the genetic cause of narcolepsy in dogs.

Since most fish lack eyelids, many people have wondered whether fish can even nod off. The paper from Mignot’s team provides proof that they do, and that zebrafish are a powerful new animal model for studying sleep disorders.Zebrafish are all the rage among developmental biologists because compared with mice they are inexpensive to breed. And unlike cheaper fruit fly and worm models, fish have a backbone—thereby better representing the human nervous system. And their babies reveal many details because they are see-through.

Self suspects that there is one glaring typo in above article, and that is in paragraph 4, the sentence: And their babies reveal many details . . . Shouldn’t the word be bodies rather than babies, dear blog reader???

“The fact that zebrafish larvae are transparent means you can look directly at their neuronal network, even in living fish,” said Mignot, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Mignot’s laboratory found the gene responsible for narcolepsy in Dobermans and Labradors in 1999, helping reveal how the disorder occurs in humans.

Article goes on to say that a very important initial step was to determine

how normal zebrafish snooze. The paper’s first author, postdoctoral scholar Tohei Yokogawa, trained infrared lights and cameras on aquariums to monitor zebrafish in the dark. After watching hours of footage, Yokogawa noted zebrafish drooped their tail fin when motionlessness and spent most of the night just under the water’s surface or at the tank’s bottom.

To find out if the droopy-tailed fish were asleep, Yokogawa checked to see if they experienced sleep rebound, the drive to try to catch up on lost sleep, after being sleep deprived. So first he had to make sure the fish stayed awake. Tapping on the aquarium walls and using an underwater speaker didn’t work, but he found a gentle electrical pulse kept fish active. He then created a computerized system to stimulate a fish each time it started to doze off. Once the sleep-deprived fish returned to a peaceful dark aquarium, it compensated for lost rest with longer napping.

Unfortunately, some researchers had to stay awake with the fish. “Originally we didn’t have the automated sleep deprivation system, so I manually sleep deprived them, becoming sleep deprived myself,” Yokogawa added.

Self has discovered many many interesting things that she didn’t know about before she read the article. Such as, for instance, the fact that the researchers had to stay awake with the fish, and ended up being very sleep-deprived themselves.

At the end of the article, the scientists interviewed ask a set of very interesting questions:

    First, why are we sleeping?
    Second, what is the function of sleep?
    Third, why has the capacity to sleep been selected by natural evolution, in effect making it practically universal?

Stay tuned, dear blog readers, stay tuned.

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