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Mice that have a particular brain chemical switched off become hyperactive and sleep for just 65 per cent of their normal time.
This discovery, published in the journal Neuron, could help researchers to develop new drugs that promote better sleep, or control hyperactivity in people with the medical condition mania.
Scientists altered the neurochemistry of mice to help investigate why we need to sleep, what controls our wakefulness, and how a balance between these two states influences brain functions like concentration and memory and our general health.
The chemicals they studied, histamine and GABA, are produced in a primitive part of the brain that is highly similar in mice and humans.
The team of scientists was led by Dr Stephen Brickley, Professor Nick Franks and Professor Bill Wisden from the Department of Life Sciences and the Centre for Neurotechnology at Imperial College London.
Professor Wisden said: "Sleep is essential for health. We have to do it every day. But nobody yet knows why."
Scientists already know the chemical histamine sends signals to the brain to make it awake, which is why antihistamines are associated with drowsiness. The new research suggests that the chemical GABA acts against histamine, like a chemical 'brake' preventing wakefulness being too intense.
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