A rather large and intimidating stack of parchment is sitting on the professor's desk as you enter the dungeons for your midterm lesson. Preston, the growing St. Bernard puppy, is gnawing a bone atop one stack of papers while you walk by, not taking much notice of the group of students. The copper moose is attempting to nudge Preston off the exams with his antlers, making a scraping sound with his tiny hooves. Professor von Graft scoops Preston up to avoid getting all the exams wet with puppy slobber. Once everyone is sitting where they desire, she smiles warmly and begins.
Welcome, welcome my young potioneers! My always growing and rather slobbery friend has taken to curling up on the paperwork on my desk, I do apologize for that. In consideration of the rather hefty ongoing assignment I gave you following our last lesson, I thought I would take a step back and reflect on the mundane biological and physiological elements raised by our previous lab. I’d also like to briefly discuss the impact that sedatives, magical and mundane, have on the mind and body. Let’s dive right in!
You’re Always In My Head
Why do we sleep? We all know that feeling of needing sleep: that dragging sensation where our minds seem to be operating just a few seconds behind everything around us. But what is the reason we need to take that time to shut off our brains every day (or whenever you’re able to sleep) in order to properly function?
Interestingly, this is something that scientists have also been wondering up until only very recently. There were many varying theories involving the body’s need to recharge, a necessary daily means of energy conservation, and even a thought that sleep may somehow be correlated with brain plasticity, but scientists could not conclusively prove that any of these hypotheses was closer to truth than the others. Thus this integral part of life – not only for humans – has remained a mystery to magical and non-magical worlds up until a report released in 2013 which announced the first reason, at least, that we sleep.
A team of researchers from a Muggle school called the University of Rochester in the United States led a study that examined the changes in the brains of mice while they slept in comparison to their brain activity while awake. Specifically, they were monitoring the levels of certain toxic cells known to cause degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s in the brain and whether the levels changed once they were asleep. They found that while the mice were sleeping, their brains were better able to flush out these toxic cells, lowering the overall levels in the brain.
This is clearly a positive effect, but what did sleeping have to do with this improved power to cleanse the brain? To oversimplify it a bit, your brain is primarily composed of two types of cells. One type of cell, which are called glial, acts to provide for the health of the second type of cell, the neuron, which is responsible for sending signals within the brain. The way the glial are structured, they form channels around the neurons which wash away toxic cells.
While you are sleeping, the decreased brain activity causes your neurons to shrink up to 60% in size. This creates much wider channels around the neurons. These channels fill with a special fluid that is not found anywhere else in your body. This fluid runs through the channels formed by the glial to clean out your brain. This process does continue to some extent when you are awake, but researchers found that in the mice brains, it was only 5% as effective when they were awake as when they were asleep.
So the next time you have the urge to pull a few full nights without sleep for the sake of a single grade, it may be wise to consider the effects this could have longer term of your health and well-being.
I Haven’t Slept
In considering how sedatives such as the Sleeping Draught work, we return to the group of cells we briefly mentioned known as neurons. These cells are responsible for transmitting information throughout the body in order to allow you to learn, reason, remember, and adjust to situations and changes in your environment. Neurons are connected by neurotransmitters, which work to relay the information from one neuron to the next in the most efficient way possible.
When you take a sedative, its main function is to increase the activity of something called gamma-aminubutyric Acid (GABA) (Do not stress out trying to memorize the name, simply try to follow the concept!). The purpose of GABA is to act as an inhibitor in the nervous system. That is to say, its primary purpose is to slow down and prevent the transmission of information between the neurons. This, in turn, allows the body to relax and hopefully fall asleep. Sedatives like this are often used to assist with sleep, but they can also be used to help with anxiety related disorders that cause tension and stress.
If you experiment with magical and mundane sedatives, you’ll find that, as we’ve discussed previously, the magical solutions tend to take effect much more quickly than the mundane. Many magical potions are also non-habit forming, while there is the potential for addiction and abuse with many Muggle sleeping pills. Also, as you continue to take mundane sleep aids, you’ll note that your body may quickly build a tolerance, which is to say that you will have to continue to increase dosage in order to gain the same effect. For potions such as the Sleeping Draught we brewed last lesson, you can continue to take the same dosage as prescribed by a healer and experience equal effects over a long period. The magic present in the potion allows for a certain elasticity of the neurotransmitters, and instead of continuing to alter the way the body processes through rather biologically harsh chemicals to inspire sleep, magical remedies instead allow them to revert back as though they were never harmed as the the potion’s effects dissipate.
Another interesting consideration is the impact that sedatives can have on the nervous system after their effects have worn off. It’s fairly common knowledge that, once caffeine and other stimulants have passed through the body, there is a “crash” of sorts that happens afterwards. After the brain has been pushed beyond its normal functioning to create chemicals that stimulate and energize the body, it finds itself depleted and incapable of keeping up with “normal” functioning for a time. This is why you may feel tired several hours after you finish consuming an overwhelming number of cups of coffee. Many mundane sedatives have a similar effect insofar as, once the effects of the sedative have run their course, it can lead to counter-effects such as a racing mind, and in some extreme cases even cause seizures and other potentially fatal consequences.
Most magical sedatives, such as the Sleeping Draught, do not cause these dangerous reactions. Once the Sleeping Draught is no longer taking effect, the neurotransmitters in the brain gradually return back to normal functioning. There are some mild mundane hormones and ingredients that work slightly differently, but have a similarly innocuous effect on the nervous system for the most part. One example of this would be melatonin, which is a hormone naturally present in the body that assists in regulating a body clock, or simply the cyclical periods of wakefulness and sleep. If a melatonin supplement is taken several hours before bed, the change in the levels of this hormone in the body can shift a person’s body clock so that they are able to go to bed slightly earlier. Melatonin is a relatively safe mundane supplement to take in place of the Sleeping Draught, but it can still cause mild nausea, reduced blood flow, and grogginess, so it is wise to consult with a healer before taking it.
And with that very brief look at sleep functions and the central nervous system, I give you some time to finish reviewing before the midterm. There will be a quiz portion and an essay portion. For the essay, I would like you to pretend that you are interested in coming up with a better Sleeping Potion than the one invented by Bellaluna Alvás. I will provide more information in the prompt, but this essay should NOT be fewer than 500 words.