Sleeping is pretty great. You feel refreshed, energized, and your mood is generally better after a good sleep session. But if we don’t sleep, we become cranky, tired, confused, and have baggy/puffy eyes that make us look terrible. How much sleep we require differs from individual to individual, but we all need to sleep eventually. That means we spend on average 7-8hrs of lying still every day of our lives recharging ourselves like batteries. It may seem normal and benign because we have been doing it for so long and we are not the only animals to sleep. Many creatures of the Earth also needs sleep and are probably as cranky as humans if they don’t get it.
But why do we sleep? Why don’t we just recharge our bodies without sleep? The truth is that scientists don’t know as of yet. We know how it helps but we don’t know why we need it to help. It is very strange that our ancestors, who slept in the wilderness with predators around every corner, would have to go into a paralyzed state that left them vulnerable just to recover. They left themselves exposed to many uncertainties that could have killed them. On top of this danger, they were also losing a lot of time every day to just do nothing. They could have been preparing food, clothes, weapons, and many other things that would have made them more ready for the world they lived in. Even now, we could use these extra hours to do so much from extra work (not my first choice), relax, try new experiences, have fun, learn, and many more things instead of just doing nothing.
While a world without sleep might still be a trope of science fiction, scientists are working on ways to minimize the need for sleep and treat tiredness for those who cannot get enough sleep. Recently, scientists, funded by DARPA, have uncovered a chemical that can help treat sleepiness and disorders like narcolepsy . The chemical in question is orexin A, a naturally occurring brain hormone. The scientists placed the hormone in nasal sprays and used them on monkeys that were sleep deprived. The monkeys went 30-36hrs without sleep and were split into two groups: half had the orexin A spray and the other half had a placebo . They then placed the monkeys through cognitive trials and found that those with orexin A were able to function as well as monkeys that were not sleep deprived and performed better than monkeys that received the placebo. Because this is a natural hormone that already exists in us as part of sleep/wake regulation, there were no notable negative side effects. The researchers also found that orexin A only worked on monkeys that were sleep deprived and did not affect monkeys that were already alert/rested .
For its results and minimal negative effects, Orexin A is now a strong candidate for the treatment of tiredness and lack of sleep. Previous sleep treatments were addictive, had terrible side effects (rise in blood pressure and mood swings for example), and did not work as well . It is one of the reasons that the military is so interested in orexin A. Previously, they would use amphetamines on air pilots for long distance flights, which is obviously a bad idea . Besides treating tiredness, orexin A might be capable of treating narcolepsy because Jerome Siegel, one of the researchers in this study, previously found that orexin A deficiency was linked to narcolepsy and that a potential treatment might be supplements of orexin A to compensate .
While this all sounds wonderful, there are still a lot of work that needs to be done before we can have this regularly in our lives. We need to conduct more animal trials to ensure that we are not missing any crucial effects that orexin A may have over a short term and long term period. We then need to test how effective orexin A remains over a long term usage. Right now, we know that it helps with tiredness, but we need to continue testing to see how/if it affects other problems associated with a lack of sleep such as increased cardiovascular disease risk . Even after all of this is done in animals, we then need to spend considerable time testing this on humans before we can introduce it as a drug for general use. Despite the work that needs to be done, orexin A stands as a glimpse of the future where we would have a lot more time to enjoy life and uncover even more discoveries that were once thought to be science fiction.