How Dreams are Affected by Genes

By Stanley Yang (Writer)

Sleep is a complex biological process with multiple functions and benefits. During sleep, the body takes the opportunity to rest and heal itself to get ready for the next day. Getting a proper amount of sleep is both physiologically and psychologically important, especially for animals in the developmental stage of their lives because most of their development occurs while the body is healing and growing. Our muscles get to rest and repair and our hormonal balance is reset. Consequences of not getting the right amount of sleep are typically pernicious. A lack of sleep leads to multiple problems, including the production of more stress hormones that cause increased body fat (for energy conservation) and problems processing insulin for glucose.

Sleep is especially critical for the brain. Functions such as the cleaning out of amyloid proteins associated with Alzheimer’s and the building of immunological memory occur during this time.  While sleeping, the brain develops physically, and most critically, it stimulates the learning center of our brains. This occurs during the REM stage of sleep, wherein the brain is actually active, and we dream. The REM stage occurs about ninety minutes into your sleep and occurs each sleep cycle. During this time, many things are speculated to occur. The exact processes have not been fully dissected yet, but we are sure it is associated with memory and learning. It is also during this time that dreams occur.

Recently, new research discovered a key element in REM sleep. Two genes have been shown to directly influence and induce REM sleep in mice, giving us insight into the exact process of REM sleep. The actual science behind it is fairly simple. Molecules called ligands bind to chemical receptors. Whenever chemical receptors receive this signal, ligands change their shape and cause another reaction that leads to a signal transduction pathway, which then elicits a response. Scientists have discovered two particular genes in mice that are critical to this process. These two genes, when absent from the genome of mice, result in a significant difference between the amount of REM sleep that mice with these two genes had compared to the mice without these two genes (known as knockout mice). These two genes were ones that encoded for receptors in the brain, specifically acetylcholine receptors. In the knockout mice, the amount of REM sleep that they were getting was almost undetectable. Additionally, the amount of time they spent sleeping was around an hour less compared to the mice with these two genes. Thus, these two genes were discovered to be essential elements in REM sleep, an indicator of quality sleep.

REM sleep is one of the most complex aspects of sleep, and research continues to give us insight into its hidden elements. Get more sleep—especially if you’re a student and constantly learning. Your body depends on it!

Vivian Lu