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.
The coronavirus pandemic rattled our supply chains, putting them under intense pressure and forcing many to become aware of these complex systems that bring us food, medicine and other goods. Was 2020 a wake-up call to rethink supply chains? Or have they proved more robust than we feared and should continue as business as usual? In February, we ask whether today’s supply chains are due for reconfiguration. We speak to Dr Tessa Avermaete, a bioeconomist at KU Leuven in Belgium, about why short and local is not always better – or more sustainable – when it comes to food supply. We look at how medical supply chains can be maintained or even set up during a crisis situation, and at the environmental and social impacts of Europe’s supply chains on the rest of the world. And we look at how, in the future, goods from food to furniture could be transported according to new concept called the ‘physical internet’, where logistics mimics how information travels through the internet.
The construction industry has a heavy carbon footprint, accounting for some 40% of global emissions, and yet, as the world’s population grows, demand for housing and building is only soaring. We kick off 2021 by looking at how the construction sector can become greener and some of the radical solutions required. We speak to sustainable architecture expert Dr Catherine De Wolf about the need to design recyclable buildings and how that will require a fundamental restructure of the way the construction industry works. We look at nearly zero energy wooden homes and investigate whether this material can help us kick our concrete habit – concrete being the most used substance on Earth. We home in on techniques to make cement greener and piezoelectric to light up spaces with the addition of vegetable waste, and at how self-healing building materials can prolong the life of civil infrastructures. And we explore the promise of fungal architecture to see whether structures grown from fungus can green the way we build.
The earliest signs of alkaptonuria are often subtle and harmless, like a diaper stained black. However, over the years, this rare genetic disease can lead to a lifetime of surgery. Now, after 20 years of research, a not-so-new drug can offer relief for thousands of patients worldwide.
Nitisinone approval brings relief for people with alkaptonuria.
Producers must act now to ensure survival, say experts.
Dr Kate Rychert studies ocean plate structures.