Animals' Sleep: Is There a Human Connection?

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they know that the dog would become invaluable in helping treat the disease. Major advances in treating narcolepsy were made in the 1970s, when William Dement, MD, PhD, of the Stanford University Sleep Research Center learned that certain dogs displayed similar symptoms of narcolepsy as manifested in humans: sudden collapse and muscle weakness leading to near-paralysis.

These initial observations led to the identification over 20 years later of the narcolepsy-causing gene in dogs, hypocretin receptor 2, by Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD, at Stanford University. Further studies by Siegel and Mignot showed that humans who suffer from narcolepsy had a severely reduced amount of the narcolepsy-preventing chemical hypocretin in their brains. Siegel also discovered that injecting hypocretin in dogs reduces the degree of some symptoms. These findings suggest that it may be possible to design drugs that replace the missing hypocretin molecules in patients with the disorder. "You are happy when you make a discovery, but you are really, really happy when you make a discovery with therapeutic possibilities," says Mignot.

Studying animals' sleep patterns and sleep habits carries the potential to benefit other brain disorders in humans. Unihemispheral sleep in birds and dolphins—where one side of the brain remains awake in sleep—may provide new clues into the human brain. According to Amlaner, the bird's sleeping brain could be used in the future as the model to help treat debilitating brain illnesses in humans.

This article was published in the Winter 2003, Volume 5, Issue 1 of sleepmatters.