Study: New sleep med may prevent people from snoozing through emergencies

KAGOSHIMA, Japan — Popping a sleeping pill to ensure sound shuteye may get you extra rest, but it also might prevent you from waking up in the event of an emergency. Researchers in Japan believe a new type of medication could be just as effective in helping people fall asleep without limiting the area of the brain that wakes us if we’re in danger.

Benzodiazepines, such as Ativan and Halcion, are commonly prescribed to people battling sleeping issues, but they also send the body’s natural “intruder alert” into a daze, too, say researchers from Kagoshima University. The authors point to a 1987 study in which half of the participants didn’t wake up when a fire alarm blasted at a volume comparable to the sound of someone vacuuming right next to their bed.

“Benzodiazepines stimulate the widespread brain receptor GABA-A, which makes us sleepy but also suppresses off-target brain areas – including the ‘gatekeeper’ that decides which sensory inputs to process,” explains study senior author professor Tomoyuki Kuwaki of Kagoshima University, Japan, in a media release.

Kuwaki and his team instead tout an experimental class of hypnotic drugs called dual orexin receptor antagonists (DORAs). In another study, the researchers tested a medication referred to as DORA-22 on mice, and compared the results to a group of mice given the drug triazolam (Halcion), and a control group given a placebo.

They found that the rodents dosed with DORA-22 woke up just as easily as the mice given the placebo when presented with various threats, such as the smell of a fox, a high-pitched noise, and a shaking cage comparable to the rattle of an earthquake.

Meanwhile, the mice given the common sleep med didn’t wake up as fast.

“As expected, arousal in response to these threatening stimuli was delayed significantly in the triazolam treatment, but not in the DORA-22 treatment, compared to placebo,” says Kuwaki, adding that the experimental drug had similar sleep-promoting effects as triazolam, extending the duration of sleep for the mice by up to 40% compared to the placebo.

What’s more, the mice also fell back asleep just as quickly as the group given triazolam, when the threat was over.

To be sure the effects were related to the effects of the drug, a non-sensory threat was also presented to the sleeping mice.

“The three groups woke equally quickly when we suddenly reduced the amount of oxygen in their cage. This suggests that the delay in rousing to threatening stimuli caused by triazolam was not caused by a general inhibition of waking systems in the brain,” says Kuwaki.

Researchers also say that DORAs may also leave individuals feeling more alert the next day compared to benzodiazepines, making it safer for them to drive.

Moving forward, Kuwaki hopes to test the drug on humans and ensure it’s safe for use.

“Although it remains to be seen whether DORAs have the same properties when used in humans, our study provides important and promising insight into the safety of these hypnotics,” he says.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

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