The nature of sleep

Behaviourally, sleep is a reversible state of reduced awareness of and responsiveness to the environment. Usually (but not necessarily) sleep occurs when lying down, quietly, with little movement.

Physiologically, sleep has characteristic features which distinguish it from other states of relative inactivity. Within sleep two physiologically distinct states have been defined, i.e. non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Both NREM and REM sleep are active processes. Wakefulness is maintained by cortical noradrenaline (norepinephrine), dopamine, and acetylcholine from terminals of brainstem neurones. For sleep to occur, activity in the ascending reticular activating system must diminish. In addition, however, NREM sleep depends on activity especially in the basal forebrain systems, while the pons is primarily responsible for the control of REM sleep. Serotonin and g-aminobutyric acid neurones, as well as various peptides, are involved in NREM sleep; acetylcholine is essentially involved in the generation of REM sleep.

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