Rest easy—research shows gene editing could hold the key to deep sleep

A good night’s rest can often be the best medicine, which means new research into gene editing that may have unlocked the part of the brain responsible for deep sleep could lead to exciting new therapy options. 

Rather than counting sheep, researchers at Harvard Medical School studied mice to better understand neurons in the thalamus, the region of the brain that regulates sleep and wakefulness. Using CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing, the researchers disrupted a gene that codes for a protein that binds the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA.

By disrupting the gene, researchers were able to boost the activity of delta waves—electrical signals transmitted across neurons that arise during the deepest phases of relaxation, known as non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep.

Testing the cortical oscillations of the mice showed they enjoyed enhanced deep sleep as a result of the disrupted gene, the researchers pointed out in their findings, published in Nature Communications on April 26.

Specifically, they noted a marked increase in NREM slow wave activity in the mice. This was most pronounced at the beginning of their sleep and was of a similar magnitude to the increase observed after sleep deprivation, even though the mice were not sleep deprived.

If additional animal studies produce similar results, the research could lay the groundwork for therapies that precision-target this “deep sleep” protein.

“Our findings represent an important step forward in pinpointing the molecular basis of sleep regulation and point to an alternative pharmacologic strategy for promoting natural, restorative sleep,” said Radhika Basheer, Ph. D, the study's senior investigator and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and VA Boston.

The findings are especially important as while many commonly used insomnia medicines do target the GABA neurotransmitter, they tend to dampen the activity of delta waves, meaning the resulting sleep is not necessarily restorative.

“We believe our findings set the stage for developing a new class of sleep medicines that can achieve this all-important maintenance of deep sleep by boosting delta wave oscillations,” Basheer said.