WWAMI Scientist Gets $1.3 Million Grant To Research Why Humans Sleep

Apr 2, 2012

A scientist with the WWAMI program at Spokane’s WSU Riverpoint campus has received a large grant to study one question: why do humans sleep? Boise State Public Radio highlighted the WWAMI program a couple of weeks ago as it turned 40. It's a cooperation between five northwest states, including Idaho, to train doctors. But WWAMI doctors also conduct research. One of those is Jonathan Wisor . 

“Why don’t you sleep on it” is a common adage to help with big decisions. Wisor is interested in doing just that. Well, at least studying why that sleep is so necessary.

Dr. Wisor received a $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how the brain processes glucose, which the body uses as a primary energy source.

“The purpose of the grant is to test our hypothesis that the very function of sleep is to reduce the brain’s demand for glucose,” Wisor explains.

He says the brain can detect when you’ve been awake all day and using glucose, and it forces itself to shut down, going into a mini-hibernation.

He compares the process to people cleaning out a coal furnace. The furnace may have enough fuel to work, but it still has to be shut down so the soot and ash can be cleaned out. He says it’s the same for the brain.

“It’s not that it’s running out of glucose, it’s not that it’s running out of fuel," Wisor says. "It’s that it needs to clean out the bio-chemical equivalent of soot and ash that build up when we are constantly using the brain when we are awake.”

Dr. Wisor will run lab tests to understand the use of glucose in healthy brains, hoping to apply the results to stroke, diabetes, and other vulnerable states of the brain. All in an effort to answer the question: why do we sleep?

“This is like, this is sort of the holy grail of our research endeavor,” he says.

By the way, how many hours does a sleep doctor rest each night? He says about seven.

Copyright 2012 Spokane Public Radio.