Hungarian researchers discovered a neural network in the human brain that regulates alertness levels, the academy’s press release said. The research was conducted by the Institute of Experimental Medicine and the Research Centre for Natural Sciences of the Academy, the two groups led by László Acsády and Ferenc Mátyás.
So how does it work? Everyone has experienced a sudden increase in alertness – for example, when walking in a forest in the dark, the slightest unusual noise can sharpen our senses in an instant. The human brain has various states of alertness – from excited to bored – and the researchers worked on the premise that there is a distinct system within the brain regulating these states.
This neuron network is found in the thalamus (a structure of the forebrain) and it receives sensory input from the entire body and reacts to even the slightest change. The researchers say that this network is only a warning system, saying “something out of the ordinary is coming”. It acts as a switch regulating alertness level. As such, it is both very sensitive to input and ultimately responsible for our reactions to the unexpected, good or bad. Those reactions to the unexpected are – in a broader biological interpretation – the factors of stress.
The network discovered by the Hungarian teams is, however, only responsible for issuing the alert – interpretation and response are decided elsewhere in the brain. They also say that this network is the triggering mechanism of stress-induced insomnia. The hope is that a better understanding of how this system works can lead to the development of more effective sleep medication.
The research team’s paper was published in Nature Neuroscience.