An insomniac’s fondest dream

Discovery
by Mark Reynolds

Image: Ethan Rilly

Sleep deprivation is a form of torture, according to international law, but there is no appeal to The Hague for the hollow-eyed and tormented who suffer from insomnia. There is no satisfying medical remedy either: drugs currently prescribed to help involuntary night owls get their rest don’t reliably induce the right kind of sleep — the deep slumber that refreshes the mind and body — and their side effects can be brutal.

Gabriella Gobbi, an associate professor of psychiatry, may have found a remedy. The key is the cellular triggers on which melatonin hormone works — MT1 and MT2. The function of the two receptors is not fully understood, but their importance can hardly be understated.

“Melatonin regulates a lot of things — mood, sleep, circadian rhythm, appetite,” explains Gobbi.

“We used a new compound that acts selectively on the MT2 receptor. And we discovered that this com-pound induces sleep. In particular, it induces non-REM sleep — that is, slow-wave sleep.”

In their tests, treated animals went to sleep more quickly, and for longer periods of time, than without the compound, while exhibiting the slow-wave brain activity of deep sleep. Gobbi and her colleagues are eager to take their compound out of the lab and begin the process of clinical trials, and have formed a spin-off company through McGill.

While the potential practical applications of their discovery are appealing, the scientific possibilities it opens up could be monumental. Melatonin’s role as a “super-hormone,” governing many key bodily functions, means the ability to manipulate the MT2 receptor — and, Gobbi hopes, the MT1 receptor as well — could lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of many different biological functions, and treatments for numerous disorders.

“We want to experiment, to determine the role of MT2, in order to find its physiological functions,” says Gobbi.

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