Bright light arouses us. Bright light makes it easier to stay awake. Very bright light not only arouses us, but is known to have antidepressant effects. Conversely, dark rooms can make us sleepy. It's the reason some people use masks to make sure light doesn't wake them while they sleep. Now researchers at UCLA have identified the group of neurons that mediates whether light arouses us — or not. Dr. Jerome Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, and colleagues report in the October 26, 2011 edition of the Journal of Neuroscience that the cells necessary for a light-induced arousal response are located in the hypothalamus, an area at the base of the brain responsible for, among other things, control of the autonomic nervous system, body temperature, hunger, thirst, fatigue — and sleep. These cells release a neurotransmitter called hypocretin, Dr. Siegel said. The researchers compared mice with and without hypocretin and found that those that didn't have it were unable to stay awake in the light, while those who had it showed intense activation of these cells in the light but not while they were awake in the dark. This same UCLA research group earlier determined that the loss of hypocretin was responsible for narcolepsy and the sleepiness associated with Parkinson's disease. But the neurotransmitter's role in normal behavior was, until now, unclear. "This current finding explains prior work in humans that found that narcoleptics lack the arousing response to light, unlike other equally sleepy individuals, and that both narcoleptics and Parkinson's patients have an increased tendency to be depressed compared to others with chronic illnesses," said Dr.
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