New York, NY Feb. 11, 1998-- A Columbia University researcher is "stirring" up conventional views on the function of rapid eye movement(REM) sleep. According to David Maurice, Ph.D., professor of ocular physiology in the Department of Ophthalmology at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, REM sleep may have more to do with vision than with dreams.
The research, reported in the Feb. 13 issue of Experimental Eye Research, suggests that the aqueous humor, the clear watery liquid in the anterior chamber just behind the cornea, needs to circulate to bring oxygen to the cornea from blood vessels in the iris. When the eyelids are closed during sleep the circulation slows dramatically, and the motion of rapid eye movement simply serves to "stir" the anterior chamber and prevent corneal suffocation.
In the 1950s, research found that sleepers could often recall a dream if they were awakened when their eyes appeared to be darting around beneath their eyelids. From these findings evolved the popular theory that during this REM sleep the brain is processing information gathered while awake, "rather like a store closing for business during its taking inventory," says Dr. Maurice. "Because of its implications in the functions of the central nervous system, REM has been considered to be the domain of disciplines ranging from psychology to neuropharmacology and it has not received attention from ocular physiologists."
Dr. Maurice proposes a completely different purpose for REM sleep. He
developed his theory when he learned of a young man whose eyes had been
immobilized by an accident and whose corneas had become laced with blood
vessels, presumably to supply the corneas with oxygen. Dr. Maurice knew that
when the eyes are closed, oxygen can reach the cornea from the iris only by
diffusion across the stagnant aqueous in the anterior chamber. Using
Contact: Carolyn Conway
Columbia University Medical Center