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Feeling sleepy?

Leonie Kirszenblat initially came to my attention because an elegant image (see left) she had created to illustrate her elegantly titled research THE YIN AND YANG OF SLEEP AND ATTENTION. For this contribution Leonie was recently awarded a PhD.

Leonie grew up in Melbourne with a dual interest in science and art, which saw her studying both at university – finishing with Honours in genetics. She came to Brisbane to find work as a research assistant at Queensland Brain Institute (QBI). After listening to an inspiring talk by Bruno van Swinderen she switched to his lab to study behaviour. Leonie uses drosophila (fruit fly) to study why we can’t pay attention if we are sleep deprived. A condition any parent would be overfamiliar with. One theory is that as we pay attention during the day our synapses are busy strengthening and growing connections – the brain then needs sleep to prune the synaptic growth back to its most useful state in readiness for a new day of information. Specifically, this means that she counts the number of synapses in drosophila brains – no mean feat given that it is a brain the size of a SESAME SEED!

Sleep is a state when an animal/human (no distinction necessary, really):

  • is not moving

  • is less responsive

  • is suppressing its perception of the world around it

  • has a distinct brain activity pattern

Some of Leonie’s thoughts about the brain – it is an incredible organ for survival, it’s amazing that the brain makes you feel an emotion and then directs you to do something about it. So you might feel stressed, which is a trigger for you to stop what you’re doing and rest instead. Also immensely interesting is how different brains are, as scientists we look to control using same/similar models, but there is even differentiation from fly to fly because an individuals life experience determines how the brain is wired. AND, unsurprisingly, when it comes to brain health Leonie does aim to get eight hours of sleep each night.

I was delighted to meet this young, thoughtful, intelligent scientist. I went away from our encounter with my mind full of the wonders of the brain. It behoves me to be mindful as I soak up the neuroculture on offer at QBI.

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