Here’s something neat about
sleeping sheep: Their brains have fast zags of neural activity, similar to
those found in sleeping people.
Here’s something even neater: These bursts zip inside awake sheep’s brains, too. These spindles haven’t been spotted in healthy, awake people’s brains. But the sheep findings, published March 2 in eNeuro, raise that possibility.
The purpose of sleep
spindles, which look like jagged bursts of electrical activity on an electroencephalogram,
isn’t settled. One idea is that these bursts help lock new memories into the
brain during sleep. Daytime ripples, if they exist in people, might be doing
something similar during periods of wakefulness, the researchers speculate.
Jenny Morton, a neurobiologist at the University of Cambridge, and her colleagues studied six female merino sheep with implanted electrodes that spanned their brains. The team collected electrical patterns that emerged over two nights and a day. As the sheep slept, sleep spindles raced across their brains. These spindles are akin to those in people during non-REM sleep, which accounts for the bulk of an adult’s sleeping night (SN: 8/10/10).
But the electrodes also
caught spindles during the day, when the sheep were clearly awake. These “wake”
spindles “looked different from those we saw at night,” Morton says, with
different densities, for instance. Overall, these spindles were also less abundant
and more localized, captured at single, unpredictable spots in the sheep’s
As to the job of these
daytime bursts, “I have no idea,” Morton says. But the results hint that these spindles
may somehow help the brain handle certain kinds of information during the day,
not just at night.
In humans, changes in sleep spindles have been linked to aging, as well as diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. Studying these spindles over time in sheep may reveal clues about these human disorders, the researchers suspect.
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