Understanding the brain: Why we sleep, dream, and remember

While packing boxes to move to Iowa City in 2017, Ted Abel, PhD, found a paper from his high school AP biology course. On it was a comment from his teacher saying they hoped he would maintain his interest in neurophysiology.

Ted Abel, PhD

“It was very early on that I became interested in neuroscience,” says Abel. “It’s astounding that no matter how complex it is, the brain gives rise to Jackson Pollock paintings, to novels, and philosophy.”

A native of the Philadelphia area, Abel applied to Swarthmore College at 16. He said his desired profession was neurochemist, but since there was no neuroscience course or major then, Abel didn’t take a direct route into the field.

“I got interested in chemistry and physics first. It was that side of science and the ability to understand nature in quantitative terms that fascinated me,” says Abel.

Abel graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in chemistry in 1985. He continued his education at Cambridge and completed his PhD at Harvard, learning from several world-renowned scientists on the way.

“I am thankful for my education and especially my mentors,” says Abel. “I was a Marshall scholar in Cambridge with Tim Hunt, learning some early molecular biology, and then in my PhD I worked with Tom Maniatis, who is considered the father of molecular biology. I was able to bring these molecular approaches into neuroscience as a postdoc when I worked with Eric Kandel at Columbia University. Both Tim Hunt and Eric Kandel went on to win the Nobel Prize in the early 2000s.”

It wasn’t until later in his education that he began to ponder larger, more philosophical questions about the brain. Why do we sleep? Why do we dream? How do we remember?

Watch a recording of the 38th Presidential Lecture presented by Ted Abel, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Neuroscience and Pharmacology in the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and director of the Iowa Neuroscience Institute.

Abel brought those questions with him to the University of Pennsylvania in 1998, where he began working as an assistant professor, eventually running one of the country’s oldest neuroscience programs.

Abel found a unique opportunity to further his research on sleep and memory in Iowa City, where he moved in 2018, as founding director of the Iowa Neuroscience Institute.

“We have a university that has a century-old tradition of neuroscience research, education, and clinical care,” says Abel. “Former UI Dean Carl Seashore was one of the few people at a meeting for Freud’s only visit to the United States. It’s an extraordinarily collaborative neuroscience community at the University of Iowa, ranging from psychology to pharmacology to psychiatry.”

Abel presented the UI’s 38th Presidential Lecture on Nov. 7, where he discussed research that is more than two decades in the making.

“One of the things I’m trying to get across is the way in which our knowledge of memory and of sleep enables us to answer questions that philosophers have asked for centuries,” Abel says.

Abel, professor and chair of the Department of Neuroscience and Pharmacology in the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine and director of the Iowa Neuroscience Institute, delivered a lecture titled “It’s not a dream, it’s a memory,” on Sunday, Nov. 7.

Why is sleep and the brain an important topic to discuss in your lecture?

What’s interesting is that there still is a view that sleep is for the weak and if you just suck it up, you can get through it. The thing we’ve found is that you can’t.

I will talk about some experiments in mice where we are able to manipulate molecules in the brain to make them resistant to sleep deprivation. Normally sleep loss would impair memory, but if we rewire the brain, we can train animals, sleep deprive them, and their memory is not impaired.

The other thing people don’t realize is that the impact of staying awake all night is not just that you’re going to have trouble the next day. It’s that as you’re sleep deprived, your body has metabolic, cognitive, and immune challenges.

What challenges are still ahead in understanding the role of sleep and memory?

The real challenge we have is translational research—going from the bench to the bedside. We have done really well from the bedside to the bench. If we have a patient that has an alteration in a particular gene or a problem in an area, we can model it at the bench, but coming back to treatments has been more difficult.

One of the reasons that is an issue with neurological, psychiatric, and neurodevelopmental conditions is that they occur across the lifespan and we don’t have a marker or a sign that signals future conditions or complications. We have made dramatic improvements in our treatment of heart disease, for example. That is not necessarily because we can better measure plaque in arteries; it’s because we know that hypertension 10 years before is a marker of developing heart disease.

In the brain, we don’t have those measures that signal future conditions. However, sleep may be one of those measures to help us identify neurological, psychiatric, and neurodevelopmental conditions in the brain.

How have humans’ sleep habits changed over time, and how does this change the way sleep is studied?

When you look at the 1950s to now, we are sleeping about 1.2 hours less a day now, and the pandemic, with all the related stress, has made that worse. We are way below what health experts say we need. It varies across life and for each person because sleep is not a single phenomenon. In humans, when we first go to sleep at night, we go into non-REM sleep. That’s a deep sleep, and later in the night you have REM sleep, and that is a lighter sleep. We can more easily be woken up from REM sleep. If you always get up early, you are going to lose your REM sleep. You may think you are getting enough sleep, but you might be missing a part and not completing the types of sleep you need.

What do you hope to convey in your lecture? What do you hope people take away from it?

Our knowledge of memory and sleep, while built upon the technical advances driven by investments like the Iowa Neuroscience Institute and the BRAIN Initiative, enables us to answer age-old questions that have been with humanity from the beginning: Why do we sleep? Why do we dream? And how do we remember? My lecture will seek to answer some of those questions.

What does it mean to you to have been chosen to deliver the presidential lecture?

It’s a tremendous honor. It’s a chance to speak to the broad community—students, faculty, staff, and also the Iowa City community—and talk generally about the impact that neuroscience has had on our understanding of the brain. It’s also a chance to describe the tremendous impact that the Iowa Neuroscience Institute has had on the community since its founding five years ago.

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