When cells in a certain part of the brain become overworked, a compound in the brain kicks in, telling them to shut down. This causes people to become drowsy and fall asleep. Alter that natural process by adding coffee or tea, and the brain compound called adenosine is blocked, and people stay awake.
These findings, available online and in the April 21 issue of the journal Neuron, offer new clues regarding the function of the brain in the body's natural sleep process, as well as potential targets for future treatments for insomnia and other sleep problems. Prolonged increased neural activity in the brain's arousal centers triggers the release of adenosine, which in turn slows down neural activity in the arousal center areas. Because the arousal centers control activity throughout the entire brain, the process expands outward and causes neural activity to slow down everywhere in the brain.
"Insomnia and chronic sleep loss are very common problems," said Dr. Robert W. Greene, professor of psychiatry and senior author of the study. "In addition, all the major psychiatric disorders, including depression, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder have sleep disruption as a prominent symptom.
"If we can understand better some of the factors involved in what makes us normally fall asleep, we can start to understand what might be going wrong when we don't."
Showing that increased brain cell activity triggers drowsiness also explains how caffeine works in helping people fight sleep. "We knew that coffee kept us awake," Dr. Greene said. "Now we know why: Coffee and tea are blocking the link between the prolonged neural activity of waking and increased levels of adenosine in cells, which is why they prevent us from getting drowsy."