A funny thing happened to the research team at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre. They were testing a new drug designed to treat depression and discovered that when the depression drug was administered in a specific way, the test subject mice fell asleep. Even more importantly, the mice slept deeper and experienced more restorative sleep than the mice in the control group that did not receive the depression drug. This discovery may pave the way to new treatment options for insomnia and other sleep disorders.
A paper outlining these findings was published in the Journal of Neuroscience in December. The McGill team, lead by Dr. Gabriella Gobbi, was conducting a multi-experiment study of melatonin, sometimes referred to as the sleep hormone.
As part of their research, team discovered that there are two receptors in the brain that are affected by melatonin called MT1 and MT2. Both are located in a part of the brain called the reticular thalamic nucleus which is involved in the part of the sleep cycle that produces restorative sleep. The initial thinking of the team was that both receptors were involved in promoting sleep, but testing confirmed that the receptors have opposite jobs. One receptor, MT2, promotes the restorative, non-REM sleep commonly referred to as deep sleep. Identification of the roles the receptors play opens the door to the development of new treatments that can target a specific receptor and increase the amount of deep sleep a person gets at night.
The team at McGill was collaborating with a team of scientists in Italy who had developed a new drug, UCM765, from melatonin. Although the drug was originally intended to treat depression and anxiety, it proved to be effective at promoting more restorative sleep when administered under the skin or directly into the brain. Researchers tested the depression drug, which binds to the MT2 receptor, on mice and found that the mice experienced two different effects related to their sleep patterns. The mice in the test group fell asleep 60% faster and slept longer resulting in 45% more deep sleep than the mice in the control group.
According to Dr. Gobbi, this new depression drug is promising for the treatment of insomnia and other sleep disorders for several reasons. First, it can be targeted to the specific receptor for deep sleep which is more effective than just taking melatonin supplements which work on both receptors. Second, the drug helps without causing any side effects, which is a significant benefit over current drugs used to treat insomnia. Third, the depression drug doesn’t impact the architecture of sleep because all other sleep stages are unaffected but the amount of deep restorative sleep is increased.
The discovery of the melatonin receptor roles and the development of this new drug are promising steps toward the day when everyone will be able to get a good night’s sleep.
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