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Sleep Cycles
Original Post

Prozak and the Platypus is based on an experiment with platypuses conducted by Dr. Jerome Seigel, who runs a center for sleep research at the Veteran’s Medical Center in Sepulveda, California, as part of the UCLA Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences department. When I was doing research for the play, Dr. Seigel was kind enough to show me around his laboratory, where the current focus is investigations into sleep apnea, a medical condition in which the windpipe collapses during sleep causing suffocation. He conducted the platypus experiment several years prior in Australia at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, because platypuses are indeed delicate, and do not travel well. He told me about going out in a boat at night to capture a platypus, viewed as a bit of a pest by local farmers, and showed me videos of the experiment, (mostly of a platypus swimming around in a tank and devouring "yabbies" - small crayfish-like creatures it breaks the neck of and eats). Dr. Seigel gave me invaluable details about the experimental process, from controlling cycles of daylight, to keeping electrics away from the platypus tank that ended up in the laboratory scenes in the play. I also gained a sense of how this experiment fit into his investigations of other animals, with interesting sleep patterns, such as dolphins, who "sleep" by swimming in circles, and resting different hemispheres of their brain.

Sleep cycles, alternating patterns of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and NonREM sleep appear in all mammals, REM sleep, when humans report their most vivid dreams has been thought to be a "higher" brain function. With the platypus, (who sleep 18 hours a day) Dr. Siegel was trying to determine that REM sleep occurred in an earlier pre-mammalian life form a monotreme. Thereby possibly putting the origins of REM sleep, back much earlier in evolutionary time than previously thought, to reptiles and birds. (The New York Times article reporting on the experiment had a pithy quote: "Even a dinosaur may dream…") By determining when in evolutionary development REM sleep appears, Dr. Siegel hopes to find clues to its function; to date, no one really knows why we dream.

After several stages of Non-REM sleep where the brain seems at rest, there is this mysterious desynchronized state where the brain is wide awake, but the body is paralyzed – or more accurately subject to involuntary movements – it is the time of our deepest sleep, when human subjects report the most vivid dreams. In REM the neural substrates responsible for our critical self-reflection fail us. We feel intense emotions and are left with fragmentary images, while the rational, decision-making part of our brains, the pre-frontal cortex, is quiet. Why? The adaptive function of the "dream state" is unknown. Thus Dr. Siegel’s inquiry into animals with unique sleep patterns like the platypus, which he studies both through observation of behavior and by monitoring electrical readings of the brain.

While sleep forms a huge part of our daily existence, much about it remains a mystery and has only recently been studied. With our society’s increasing attention to sleep, and use of sleep aids, sleep research is going through a renaissance of sorts, and is increasingly into the news. When I spoke to Dr. Siegel he said there is clearly a connection between in his sleep research and effects of Prozac (SSRIs), which he is interested in exploring. Serotonin is one of the neurotransmitters in the "off" position during REM sleep, and there are categories of anti-depressants that significantly diminish REM sleep, (the effects of which are unknown). Sleep deprivation can temporarily alleviate depressive symptoms, but many more studies and investigations are needed to understand mechanisms that trigger REM sleep and how they might relate to what we call "depression."

Comment from KellyAnne Hanrahan on 4/21/2009

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