Research on sleep disorders and the importance of regular shut-eye has deepened our understanding of the link between sleep and brain health.
Overall, there are more than 80 sleep disorders, ranging from the mildly annoying to the potentially deadly. The best known is probably insomnia; about 10 percent of the general population has chronic insomnia, an inability to fall asleep for multiple nights over a period of months.
Addressing sleep disorders “is paramount to not only protecting the brain down the road but also on a day-to-day basis,” says Daniel Barone, MD, associate medical director of the Weill Cornell Center for Sleep Medicine in New York City and co-author of The Story of Sleep: From A to Zzz (Rowman & Littlefied, 2023). “One of the best ways to take care of our brains is by getting quality sleep.”
Research on sleep disorders has led to improvements in treatment for a variety of sleep and neurologic conditions. Case in point: Studies in the late 1990s on the causes of narcolepsy with cataplexy—the condition Connor was initially diagnosed with—led to the development of dual orexin receptor agonists, drugs now commonly prescribed to treat insomnia. The researchers discovered that people with narcolepsy with cataplexy often had low levels of hypocretins (orexins), brain chemicals that sustain alertness and prevent REM from happening at the wrong time.
“Once they found out, ‘If I take away your hypocretin, it makes you sleepy,’ there was a new idea of how to make a sleeping pill,” says Rafael Pelayo, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine in California and a sleep specialist at the university’s Sleep Medicine Center.