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Need a Snooze? Go Ask a Cat : Health: Finally, some good news for insomniacs. Scientists have discovered a molecule that induces sleep without causing that drugged-out feeling.


"Take Sominex tonight and. . . ." It's almost a household lullaby these days. Sominex, Compoz, Unisom, Sleep-Eze and their over-the-counter cousins lined up on the drugstore shelves are a mute tribute to a nation of insomniacs.

But scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, aided by a team of tired cats, have discovered a breakthrough sleep-inducing molecule.

It holds the promise of providing natural sleep with no drugged-feeling hangover, say the researchers, who report their progress in the June 9 issue of Science.

"The findings are very exciting," says team member Steven J. Henriksen, neurobiologist and sleep scientist. "Sleep is one of the simplest things a brain does, but we haven't been able to figure it out yet."

The scientists tested mildly sleepy cats that had been deprived of sleep by walking on a slow-moving treadmill. They chose cats for a reason any cat owner would approve of: "Cats are good sleepers," Henriksen says.

Comparing samples of a brain fluid taken from the cats before and after sleep-deprivation, the team identified a family of molecules that, when injected into rats, put them into a natural sleep.

"We didn't do anything particularly creative, but by applying powerful new analytical chemical tools, we were able to analyze biological substances and identify what they are," Henriksen says. "After that period of deprivation, we identified a new family of molecules that, lo and behold, put the rats to sleep."

It was the way the rats dozed off that was important, he adds: "They had normal sleep architecture. They curled up, dozed off comfortably, and had normal rates of rapid eye movement. This isn't the case when drugs induce sleep."

Although much more study is required, the Scripps team has opened the door to understanding how sleep works and, consequently, the failure to sleep.

This has implications far beyond the personal discomfort of tossing and turning, Henriksen says. Although sleep research has been "generally unappreciated," sleep disorders are a major medical problem in the United States, he says, citing recent figures from the National Institutes of Health that 40 million people suffer from chronic sleep disorders and another 20 million suffer from intermittent sleep problems.

Henriksen says his team's research should provide hope for effective medication.

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