What Part of the Brain Controls Sleep & Consciousness?

If you are wondering what part of the brain controls sleep and consciousness, then you’ve come to the right place.

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Several areas of the brain play a role in sleep and consciousness, including:

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The hypothalamus is a part of the brain made of different nuclei that serve a variety of functions, such as to control fatigue, sleep, and circadian rhythms.

The hypothalamus regulates sleep by a homeostatic mechanism, wherein pressure is built up during waking hours in the form of adenosine accumulation, which is relieved at sleep onset (or when caffeine is ingested).

According to another theory, the hypothalamus can shut off the arousal system, thereby bringing on sleep.

The hypothalamus has an anterior as well as posterior areas. When the anterior portion is damaged, it leads to insomnia, while sleepiness results when the posterior portion is damaged.

This suggests that sleep may be a result of activation of the anterior hypothalamus and inhibition of the posterior hypothalamus.

The Anterior Hypothalamus and the Ventrolateral Preoptic Nucleus (VLPO)

The ventrolateral preoptic nucleus (VLPO), which is also known as the intermediate nucleus of the preoptic area (IPA), is located in the anterior hypothalamus.

The VLPO is part of the brain’s sleep-promoting nuclei. One of its functions is to control states of arousal, sleep, and transitions between these two states.

How does it accomplish that?

During sleep, it becomes activated (by the accumulation of adenosine) and releases a neurotransmitter called GABA, or gamma-Aminobutyric acid, which inhibits the wakefulness promoting ascending arousal system.

During wakefulness, on the other hand, the VLPO is deactivated by the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and acetylcholine.

The Posterior Hypothalamus

The posterior hypothalamus may activate the ascending arousal system, thereby promoting wakefulness.

In narcolepsy, this system is damaged, resulting in excessive sleepiness during the day as well as frequent nocturnal awakenings.

Ascending Reticular Activating System (ARAS)

There is a structure in our brainstem known as the reticular formation. It includes ascending pathways which lead to the higher brain and descending pathways which lead to the spinal cord. Its functions include sleep and consciousness. The ascending reticular activating system (ARAS) in particular is involved in behavioral arousal and consciousness as well as the regulation of wakefulness and low consciousness-high consciousness transitions (e.g., transitioning from relaxation to high attention).

According to a behavioral neurophysiological theory propounded by Moruzzi and Magoun in 1949, wakefulness is an active state which is maintained by the ascending reticular activating system, while sleep is a passive state which results from reduction of its activity.

Supporting this theory, when this structure is electrically stimulated with electrodes, it produces arousal from sleep, wakefulness, and consciousness. Moreover, when this area was injured in cats, they exhibited immobility as if they were sleeping. Indeed, injury to the reticular formation can result in irreversible coma.

Under the influence of barbiturates, such as amobarbital, pentobarbital, and secobarbital, the reticular response is difficult to elicit or is abolished, which explains why they produce sleepiness.

On the other hand, lesioning of a different portion of reticular formation produces insomnia in cats.

When REM sleep was discovered, the ascending reticular activating system theory was found to had been wrong.

Now we know that arousal is not facilitated by a single system, but by several distinct neurotransmitter systems, all of which facilitate waking (and REM or Dreaming, which is also a waking state relative to the deeper stages of sleep) through different mechanisms.

These different systems may be responsible for different aspects of wakefulness. The ascending reticular activating system may mediate an externally, not internally, directed vigilance, an awareness of one’s surroundings.

Adenosine for example is a substance that is continuously released in our brains (specifically in the hypothalamus) while we are awake. The more adenosine we have circulating in our brain, the more tired we feel. Adenosine reaches the reticular activating system, where it acts to promote sleep. Caffeine induces wakefulness by inhibiting the release of adenosine.

According to one of the prominent neurochemical theories regarding differences between dreaming and waking consciousness, the unique nature of dream consciousness results from a massive increase of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from the ascending reticular activating system (ARAS) during REM sleep relative to the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin.

(This may help explain why choline can be used to induce lucid dreaming, while 5-HTP, a precursor of serotonin, is used to induce deep sleep.)

Another system which affects our wakefulness is influenced by norepinephrine and epinephrine, which may increase arousals and reduce deep and REM sleep due via a stimulation of the RAS.

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