The sleeping habits of worms are providing important insights into how our human brains control sleep and what makes us sleep. Brown University neurobiologists made a breakthrough observation about how the brain controls sleep while studying C. elegans nematodes. Researchers found a direct connection between sleep and a specific signaling pathway called “Notch” that is present in all animals, including humans. Commonly used in sleep studies, C. elegans nematodes are tiny worms that exhibit a sleeping pattern strikingly similar to that of humans. Like us, they nap after exercise or a big meal.
The surprising discovery occurred when Brown University scientists were testing the worms’ reaction to odors. When exposed to a stinky odor, scientists expected the worms to wriggle away; but instead, the millimeter-long worms appeared to take a brief nap before making their escape. Researchers noticed that these inexplicable naps activated Notch pathway genes. The worms became sleepy when the Notch pathway was turned on, but their activity became manic when it was shut down.
The discovery points researchers in a new direction that could eventually lead to the development of safer, more targeted sleep aids. It might also some day explain why yawns are catching and why we feel sleepy when we watch animals and other people go to sleep. Parents who use Nighty Night videos to help their children fall asleep may not understand why they work, but they know they do work.