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.
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.
On December 17th, the European Space Agency’s CHEOPS telescope will blast into space to take a closer look at some of the potentially habitable planets we’ve found beyond our solar system. Ahead of its launch, Horizon takes an in-depth look at what we already know about such exoplanets and what’s still to learn. We speak to Dr Michaël Gillon, who in 2017 was instrumental in discovering a system of seven Earth-like planets outside our solar system, about the diversity of the thousands of exoplanets we’ve found so far and next steps for research. We talk to scientists who are trying to understand the structure of Super-Earths – planets up to 10 times the size of Earth – by recreating elements of planetary cores in their labs, and others who are trying to understand how different planetary systems formed in the first place. Finally, we delve into one of the most important conditions for life to exist on exoplanets – their atmospheres – and find out how scientists are trying detect the biosignature gases that indicate the presence of life.
Scientists have cloned a genetically engineered bull which they hope will help heart valve transplant patients lead better quality lives and benefit people with red meat allergies.
Europe changed dramatically during the Bronze Age, with huge population shifts generally ascribed to the rise of new metal technologies, trading and climate change. But scientists believe that there may have been another reason for this social upheaval – the plague, possibly transported by, or on the back of, newly domesticated horses.
Removing immune-stimulating sugars should also help people with red meat allergies.
Newly domesticated horses may have increased the spread of disease.
Dr Michaël Gillon on what's next for exoplanet science.