Even though we all spend about a third of our lives asleep, there's still plenty left for us to learn about the science of sleep. This month, Horizon looks at the importance of shuteye for our physical and mental health, and how sleep-deprived brains may be both awake and asleep at the same time. Plus, we investigate what exactly drives us to sleep and wake up, the effects of insomnia, and how the way our bodies use sleep to form memories is inspiring scientists to discover ways to improve our brains.
For many people who struggle to get a good night’s rest, being able to switch on and off the brain circuits that control sleep would be a life-changer. The good news is that’s exactly what scientists hope to do, but first they need to get a better understanding of what’s going on.
Genes and adverse childhood experiences could result in a hyperalert brain that is good at being ready for action but gives rise to insomnia in later life, according to Professor Eus Van Someren, a sleep expert at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience. He is investigating the link between insomnia and depression and has discovered a strong genetic correlation among the two conditions.
Reducing the trauma associated with bad memories while someone is asleep sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it could become a reality in 10 years thanks to a greater understanding of how the brain encodes memories during sleep.
For something that can occupy such a significant chunk of time, sleep still remains a mysterious part of our lives. Although it is known to play a role in mental and physical health, such as metabolism and memory, there is much that is still not well understood.
In January, we examine how the cryosphere - ice sheets, glaciers, sea ice and other frozen parts of the planet - is changing and what this means for our planet. Earth’s cryosphere reflects the sun’s heat, regulating climate. But as the cryosphere melts, sea levels are rising and there are other impacts too – such as glacier collapse, which can generate massive avalanches. We speak to glacier expert Professor Andreas Kääb about the current state of the planet’s ice and snow and how better satellite measurements can help us understand the impacts of melting. We look at Earth’s so-called 'third pole’ of the Tibetan plateau and how ice melt will affect the millions who live in the mountains and those who depend on its run-off for water. We look at a project drilling in the Antarctic for what could be the world’s oldest ice (1.5 million years old) to see what it can reveal about climate history. And we speak to sea ice scientist Polona Itkin to get a glimpse into a day in her life aboard German icebreaker Polarstern, currently carrying out the largest Arctic expedition in history.
Seven years after scientists successfully managed to adapt a gene editing system used by bacteria into one that can be easily used in labs to edit human genes, we take a look at some of the emerging applications and ethical issues of CRISPR-Cas9. We talk to the head of the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies about whether the simplicity and low cost of CRISPR means that there is potential for misuse and what should be done about this. We find out how scientists have used CRISPR to create cows lacking two sugars that trigger the human immune system, leading to hopes of longer-lasting heart valves for transplant patients and healthier red meat. And we speak to researchers who are using CRISPR to improve other gene editing technologies.
Applying a coat of paint on the walls of a house may soon help to heat it, saving energy and reducing CO2 emissions. It could also clean the air that we breathe, breaking down chemicals and pollutants, and eliminating harmful pathogens.
New paints can store heat and neutralise polluting molecules.
Research is investigating data from sexual violence and tsunami survivors.