January 02, 2008
DARPA Develops Brain Chemical to Replace Sleep

As the line between science fiction and reality becomes increasingly blurry, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has always led the pack in terms of cool, weird, wacky and frightening innovations. This time Darpa-funded scientists have found a drug that eliminates sleepiness with a nasal spray of a key brain hormone. The spray has worked well in lab experiments, with no apparent side effects. The hope is that the hormone will serve as a promising sleep-replacement drug in humans.

The spray contains a naturally occurring brain hormone called orexin A. In tests, monkeys suffering from sleep deprivation were treated with the substance and were subsequently able to perform like well-rested monkeys on cognitive tests. Darpa is no doubt interested in the spray for it’s promise of keeping soldiers awake and alert during battle, but for those suffering from narcolepsy, the discovery may offers a potential treatment. Even those with less severe sleep disorders may be interested. According to the National Sleep Foundation, than 70 percent of Americans get less than the generally recommended eight hours of sleep per night and consequently suffer some type of sleep-deprivation symptoms.

The concoction is "a totally new route for increasing arousal, and the new study shows it to be relatively benign," said Jerome Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and a co-author of the paper. "It reduces sleepiness without causing edginess."

The military routinely administers amphetamines to pilots flying long distances, and has funded research into new drugs like the stimulant modafinil and orexin A in an effort to help troops stay awake with the fewest side effects. However, Orexin A may be a safer alternative. Stimulants been used to combat sleepiness, can be addictive and often have side effects, including raising blood pressure or causing mood swings.

In the study, monkeys were deprived of sleep for 30 to 36 hours (For the record, I feel really bad for those monkeys) and then given either orexin A or a saline placebo before taking standard cognitive tests. The monkeys given orexin A in a nasal spray scored about the same as alert monkeys, while the saline-control group was severely impaired.

The study, published in the Dec. 26 edition of The Journal of Neuroscience, found orexin A not only restored monkeys' cognitive abilities but made their brains look "awake" in PET scans, as well.

Siegel said that orexin A is unique in that it only had an impact on sleepy monkeys, not alert ones, and that it is "specific in reversing the effects of sleepiness" without other impacts on the brain.

The research came about after Siegel discovered that the