Researchers have discovered how melatonin suppresses neurons in the brain that keep you awake and alert. Their findings could lead to new therapies for those who suffer from insomnia.
“…there is nothing more important than sleep.”
An estimated 50 to 70 million Americans have some type of sleep disorder, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Some turn to melatonin supplements to help them fall asleep. Melatonin is a hormone known to promote sleep, but its underlying mechanisms are unknown.
“We as a society are losing sleep because we are working too hard, and it’s causing a variety of health concerns,” says Mahesh Thakkar, professor and director of research in the University of Missouri School of Medicine’s neurology department and lead author of the study.
“We often don’t even think about sleep or consider it important. However, there is nothing more important than sleep. We need to focus on therapies that can help you have quality sleep, not just sleep,” Thakkar says.
Using a mouse model, Thakkar’s research found that melatonin infused in the brain at dark—when the mice are awake and active—increased sleep and reduced wakefulness by suppressing specific neurons that stimulate the brain to wake up.
Thakkar also discovered that blocking melatonin receptors in the brain at bedtime significantly increased wakefulness. The experiments singled out one receptor, MT1, as the mechanism via which melatonin acts to inhibit the specific orexin neurons that wake you up. This discovery could help lead to medications that target only the MT1 receptor instead of multiple receptors, which could lead to fewer side effects for those who take sleep-promoting drugs.
“Melatonin has been used as a sleep drug for many years, but people didn’t know how it worked,” Thakkar says. “Our research suggests that if you target the melatonin MT1 receptor, you will get the most sleep with minimal side effects.”