In the era of blue light and ever-present digital screens, sleep hygiene and circadian rhythms are one of the first things to fall by the wayside. Well-meaning apps smugly offer us timers, puzzles and meditation to decompress so we can obtain that elusive good night’s rest. We trust these methods — and we look up to them.
But now, a new study is asking us to look down — at the worm.
The humble C. elegans is a soil-loving denizen whose prolific participation in research spans decades. The worm is, like many of its species, unremarkable — but its simple design is one of the many reasons scientists rely on it as a model organism.
In fact, knowing what makes a worm — this worm — doze off and wake up can lend key insights into our own sleep patterns and what regulates them.
Research from the University of Tskuba [Sick-ooh-bah] identified a neuron, called ALA [A.L.A.], that contains calcium in amounts essential for the regulation of sleep in C. elegans.
The longer the worms were awake, the more calcium ions were found in the ALA neuron. When they transitioned to sleep, the number decreased. Upon artificially activating the ALA neurons, scientists found that the worms fell asleep instantly. Sans melatonin tablets or meditation apps, it should be noted.
Scientists concluded that the ALA neuron acts as a “timer,” measuring the amount of time spent awake until a certain level is reached, prompting the worm to fall asleep.
Despite the precious insights gained from our transparent, unsegmented participants, researchers will need to replicate the study in mammals, like mice, and eventually people.
They may be no Yoda, but it seems they have a lot to teach.