The Stubborn Scientist Who Unraveled A Mystery of the Night- page 9 | Science | Smithsonian
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The Stubborn Scientist Who Unraveled A Mystery of the Night

Fifty years ago, Eugene Aserinksy discovered rapid eye movement and changed the way we think about sleep and dreaming

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Despite their rivalry, it was Dement who introduced Aserinsky to the crowd of 2,000 people in the ballroom at the OpryLand Hotel. They gave him a standing ovation. And when he finished a witty, wide-ranging talk on the history of REM, the audience again rose to its feet. “It was one of the high points of his life,” recalls his daughter Jill, who had accompanied her father to the meeting along with his stepdaughter, Iris Carter. “He wore a name tag, and people would stop and point and say, ‘There’s Aserinsky!’ ” says Carter.


One July day three years later, Aserinsky, driving down a hill in Carlsbad, California, collided with a tree and was killed. He was 77. An autopsy could not determine the cause of the accident. It’s possible he fell asleep at the wheel.


today it’s well established that normal sleep in human adults includes between four and six REM periods a night. The first starts about 90 minutes after sleep begins; it usually lasts several minutes. Each subsequent REM period is longer. REM sleep is characterized by not only brain-wave activity typical of waking but also a sort of muscle paralysis, which renders one incapable of acting on motor impulses. (Sleepwalking most often occurs during non-REM sleep.) In men and women, blood flow to the genitals is increased. Parts of the brain burn more energy. The heart may beat faster. Adults spend about two hours a night in REM, or 25 percent of their total sleep. Newborns spend 50 percent of their sleep in REM, upwards of eight hours a day, and they are much more active than adults during REM sleep, sighing and smiling and grimacing.


After 50 years, researchers have learned a great deal about what REM isn’t. For example, it was once thought that people prevented from dreaming would become psychotic. That proved not to be the case; patients with injuries to the brainstem, which controls REM, do not go nuts without it. Still, if you deprive a person of REM sleep, they’ll recoup it at the first chance, plunging directly into the REM phase—a phenomenon discovered by Dement and called REM rebound.


Studies of animals have yielded insights into REM, sometimes. In the early 1960s, Michel Jouvet, a giant of sleep research and a neurophysiologist at the University Claude Bernard in Lyon, France, mapped the brain structures that generate REM sleep and produce the attendant muscle paralysis. Jouvet, who coined the term “paradoxical sleep” as a substitute for REM sleep, also discovered that cats with lesions in one part of the brainstem were “disinhibited” and would act out their dreams, as it were, jumping up and arching their backs. (More recently, University of Minnesota researchers have documented a not-dissimilar condition in people; REM sleep behavior disorder, as it’s called, mainly affects men over 50, who kick, punch and otherwise act out aggressive dream scenarios while they sleep. Researchers believe that REM sleep disorder may be a harbinger of Parkinson’s disease in some people.) Paradoxical sleep has been found in almost all mammals tested so far except for some marine mammals, including dolphins. Many bird species appear to have short bursts of paradoxical sleep, but reptiles, at least the few that have been assessed, do not. Jouvet was especially interested in penguins, because they stay awake for long periods during the brooding season. Hoping to learn more about their physiology, he went to great trouble to implant a costly radio-telemetry chip in an emperor penguin in Antarctica. The prize research subject was released into the sea, only to be promptly gobbled up by a killer whale.


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