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.
Regenerative medicine takes a different approach to treating disease by aiming to regrow, repair or replace tissues and organs to restore their normal functions instead of just treating symptoms. This month, Horizon takes a deeper look at the promise of this emerging field and takes stock of where we are now. We look at how scientists are beginning human trials of a technique that repurposes cells from one part of the body to treat disorders in another, and find out how 3D printing is helping to tackle arthritis. We also look at the challenges of mass producing the raw materials for regenerative medicine - stem cells - and some of the regulatory and ethical issues that are emerging as the industry develops.
Every minute, satellites and sensors collect enormous amounts of data about the world around us – from temperature to pollution and forest cover to soil quality. This month, Horizon looks into the technologies behind Earth observation and how we can make best use of the vast amounts of information produced. We find out how measurements taken by people with smartphones on the ground can feed into local datasets and how the minituarisation of satellites is creating opportunities for start-ups to enter the Earth observation market. We also discover how measurements are being used to protect ecosystems and what historical data can tell us about extreme weather such as hurricanes and droughts.
Certain petrol and diesel engines designed to maximise fuel efficiency and cut carbon dioxide emissions may release harder-to-catch pollution associated with lung and heart diseases. In response, European researchers are analysing exhaust particles down to one billionth of a metre, which may help in the development of cleaner cars.
Scientists studying skin and breast cancer in genetically modified mice have spotted hybrid cancer cells that combine the properties of different cell types, a discovery that could help understand how cancer spreads in the body and provide a new target for treatment.
The European Commission has launched plans for the next research funding programme.