The hydra is a simple creature. Less than half an inch long, its tubular body has a foot at one end and a mouth at the other. The foot clings to a surface underwater — a plant or a rock, perhaps — and the mouth, ringed with tentacles, ensnares passing water fleas. It does not have a brain, or even much of a nervous system.
And yet, new research shows, it sleeps. Studies by a team in South Korea and Japan showed that the hydra periodically drops into a rest state that meets the essential criteria for sleep.
On the face of it, that might seem improbable. For more than a century, researchers who study sleep have looked for its purpose and structure in the brain. They have explored sleep’s connections to memory and learning. They have numbered the neural circuits that push us down into oblivious slumber and pull us back out of it. They have recorded the telltale changes in brain waves that mark our passage through different stages of sleep and tried to understand what drives them. Mountains of research and people’s daily experience attest to human sleep’s connection to the brain.
But a counterpoint to this brain-centric view of sleep has emerged. Researchers have noticed that molecules produced by muscles and some other tissues outside the nervous system can regulate sleep. Sleep affects metabolism pervasively in the body, suggesting that its influence is not exclusively neurological. And a body of work that’s been growing quietly but consistently for decades has shown that simple organisms with less and less brain spend significant time doing something that looks a lot like sleep. Sometimes their behavior has been pigeonholed as only “sleeplike,” but as more details are uncovered, it has become less and less clear why that distinction is necessary.
It appears that simple creatures — including, now, the brainless hydra — can sleep. And the intriguing implication of that finding is that sleep’s original role, buried billions of years back in life’s history, may have been very different from the standard human conception of it. If sleep does not require a brain, then it may be a profoundly broader phenomenon than we supposed. [Continue reading…]