Arts & Sciences

Hengen awarded $1.8M to study sleep’s contribution to brain function

“When every inch of the world is known, sleep may be the only wilderness that we have left.” – author Louise Erdrich (Image: Shutterstock)

Sleep is vitally important for brain function and survival. Yet sleep remains one of the most poorly understood features of life.

Keith Hengen, assistant professor of biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, received a three-year $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the role of sleep and waking behavior in shaping the brain’s neural dynamics.

Keith Hengen

His research will help scientists understand how sleep contributes to healthy cognition and also shed light on the mechanisms by which disrupted sleep worsens neurodegenerative and mental health disorders, like Alzheimer’s disease or depression.

“We know that sleep subserves learning and memory consolidation. But we don’t have a unifying understanding of how it does that — that’s certainly absent in the field.”

To help tackle this and other neuroscience challenges, Hengen and his laboratory group have built a unique set of tools capable of recording the activity of individual neurons in the brain over extended periods of time.

“Typically, scientists record from neurons for a few hours,” Hengen said. “We’ve engineered systems that allow us to record for months at a time so we can observe how the same neurons behave over thousands of iterations of sleep and wake, through light and dark, and across conditions that can’t be captured quickly, like aging or disease progression.”

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