New gene editing research focused on the area of the brain that handles deep sleep could open up options for life-changing therapies. Harvard Medical School researchers examined mice to gain a better understanding of neurons in the region of the brain controlling sleep and wakefulness, the thalamus. They used CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing to disrupt a gene coding for a protein that binds GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter. Through this disruption, the research team boosted delta wave activity, which is at its highest during the deepest phases of restful relaxation – non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep.
As proven through testing of their cortical oscillations, the disrupted gene made the mice enter an enhanced mode of deep sleep. The researchers’ findings, published in Nature Communications, mentioned that the mice also experienced a noticeable increase in NREM slow wave activity that was most pronounced during the initial stage of sleep. It was of similar magnitude to increases known to occur after sleep deprivation, despite the mice having plenty of rest.
Additional animal studies achieving similar results could underpin the development of innovative therapies that zero in on this “deep sleep” protein. Given the fact that many commonplace insomnia medicines target the GABA neurotransmitter and therefore allay delta wave activity – robbing sleep of its restorative capabilities – this research could be a turning point on this front.