I have been idle the past week because I have been in Galveston, TX for a secret society meeting of sleep researchers. It wasn’t really secret, but it was an invite only conference limited to less than 200 participants worldwide. The focus of the meeting was the neural mechanisms of sleep, namely those studied in animal models. As I expected, there was a central focus on optogenetics and DREAADS, recently re-named chemogenetics. Both of these methodologies have emerged about a decade ago, but have really taken off in popularity within the past two years. Basically, optogenetics and chemogenetics utilize light (opto) or drugs (chemo) to activate certain populations of neurons in specific brain regions through the assistance of transfected bacterial and viral factors.
The trip began with fulfilling every space nerd’s dream: visiting NASA and the Mission Control Center where all of the Apollo missions launched from, including Apollo 11. This room is the most famous historical landmark in the world, not just in the US. The technology of the room reminded me of human sleep laboratories from the 60-80s. The current Mission Control Center is below this room, but we were restricted access. Regardless, we also got to see the Saturn 5 rocket. Words can’t describe this monstrosity.
After a trip to NASA and some of the best Tex Mex that I ever had, we traveled to the Hotel Galvez–the conference locale–which is a beautifully maintained resort built in 1911! It was stunning and the ambiance reflected the decade that it was built.
The conference schedule was very intense, which is characteristic for a Gordon. Each day began at 9 AM, broke off for lunch around 12:30, resumed around 4 PM with posters, broke for dinner, re-started at 7 PM and ended with a nightly social at the hotel bar around 9:30 that usually lasted until 3 AM…..yes, sleep researchers do not by any means practice what we preach. For as much as I wanted to hang until the wee hours of the morning, I had to limit myself due to being in the middle of my Crossfit season.
As for the science, here are some buzzwords and key findings presented in order of salience (to me):
1. Corollary discharge: Dr. Mark Blumberg of Iowa presented evidence that twitching–a characteristic of REM sleep, particularly in neonates–is necessary for proper brain development. In describing the mechanisms of action of twitching, corollary discharge is this idea that the signal can bypass centers of the brain regulating consciousness. This is the reason why you can’t tickle yourself. Dr. Blumberg has studied twitching in neonatal rodents using a series of illuminated electrodes to identify frequencies and movement patterns.
2. The thalamus: The thalamus has been overlooked in recent years of sleep research. This is surprising considering that it is the major gateway for sensory and neural processing that underlie most biological processes. Luckily, Dr. Michael Halaasa from NYU studies the role of thalamic circuitry in memory and learning and the EEG waveforms, namely spindles, that drive these processes.
3. The Aplysia: I am really fascinated by research conducted in this neurologically simple invertebrate, particularly since one of the most renowned neuroscientists of the century–Dr. Eric Kandel, a Nobel Laureate– used the Aplyasia to study circuits of learning and memory. At this meeting, Lisa Lyons from Florida State studies learning and memory processes in the Aplyasia to examine how they are impacted by sleep loss coupled with circadian disruption. Turns out, they suffer just as much as us.
4. Astrocytes: There was a significant focus on adenosine–a neurochemical marker of sleep homeostasis released from astrocytes–and its relation to physiological sleepiness, inflammation, and memory. Dr. Jason Gerstner of UPENN also studies fatty acid metabolism in astrocytes.
5. Local sleep: This has been a salient topic in the sleep field for a few years now. The idea is that certain brain areas require more sleep–neuronal “offlining”–than others and that this phenomenon is directly proportional to the extent of use. So, you can imagine the the motor centers of athletes are in greater need of local sleep compared with those of sedentary folks.
There were plenty of other great posters and talks at the meeting, but these were certainly in my top five. Overall, I was very impressed with the quality of work and presentation at Gordon. It is as if there was a try-out for being a speaker because every talk was THAT good. This rarely happens at any scientific conference.
Great conference overall.