Scientists say they've identified a brain circuit in mice that plays a key role in the sleep-wake cycle.
The circuit is a key component of the brain's reward system, according to researchers from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
The investigators saw that as the mice ramped down for sleep, activity in this brain circuit decreased. The researchers also saw that activating this circuit could rouse the animals from sleep.
These findings could potentially lead to new treatments for sleep problems, the researchers said.
"This has potential huge clinical relevance," senior author Luis de Lecea, professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences, said in a university news release.
"Insomnia, a multibillion-dollar market for pharmaceutical companies, has traditionally been treated with drugs such as benzodiazepines that nonspecifically shut down the entire brain," he explained.
Sleep disturbances common
"Now we see the possibility of developing therapies that, by narrowly targeting this newly identified circuit, could induce much higher-quality sleep," de Lecea said.
Research on animals often fails to produce the same results in humans, though the researchers said the brain circuitry involving the reward system is similar in all vertebrates.
The study was published online in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
Between 25 percent and 30 percent of Americans have sleep problems, according to the US National Institutes of Health.
Also, sleep-wake cycle disturbances are common among people with conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, the researchers said.