How a bedtime routine may affect your brain — and your sleep 

A new target for sleep therapy was revealed by mice’s bedtime behaviors.

Your bedtime routine can have a significant effect on how well you sleep (or don’t sleep).

Now, thanks to some mice, researchers have a better idea of what may be going on in your brain during these pre-sleep behaviors — and they hope to use the information to help people battling chronic insomnia and other sleep disorders.

The challenge: An estimated 10% of adults in the U.S. live with chronic insomnia. That means they have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep three or more times every week, for at least three months. 

Insomnia can wreak havoc on a person’s physical and mental health, and millions more adults struggle with other sleep problems.

An estimated 10% of adults in the U.S. live with chronic insomnia.

While there are medications to help people fall asleep, they often have side effects, so doctors generally suggest patients first try establishing a better bedtime routine — behaviors like turning down the lights in the evening and going to sleep at the same time every night.

For many people, this can be even more effective than sleep medications, but researchers still don’t understand what these behaviors do in the brain or how that results in an easier time falling asleep.

What’s new? To get an idea of how a bedtime routine affects the brain, University of Michigan researchers studied mice, who have their own pre-sleep behaviors that typically include activities like nesting and grooming.

After determining the animals’ pre-sleep routines, the researchers then confirmed that preventing the mice from engaging in their routines disrupted their sleep — the mice needed more time to fall asleep and their sleep was lower quality. 

Using a newly developed technology, the researchers were able to study the brains of the mice while they engaged in their bedtime routines and discovered that specific neurons in a part of the brain called the “lateral hypothalamus” were activated.

Preventing the mice from engaging in their bedtime routines disrupted their sleep.

Looking ahead: Prior research has connected the lateral hypothalamus to sleep, but this study is the first to show that pre-sleep routines specifically activate these specific neurons in the brain region.

The scientists are hopeful that their discovery might lead to the development of new medications or therapies for chronic insomnia that isn’t improved by a better bedtime routine.

Still, humans and mice are very different, and it’s possible that our pre-sleep behaviors affect our brains in a different way or location, so more research on sleep is needed.

We’d love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

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