Here we have a typical image of a neuron:
The mid part is the axon, and at the ends there are dendrites. Neurons are not totally 'fixed' one upon the other, as it were a 'cable' or 'nerve', but neurons have always some space in between them. This space is called 'synaptic cleft'.
Neurons can re-arrange themselves, so other combinations can be made. Some neurons only work in one direction, others are bidirectional. There are several kinds of neurons; they are usually classified by the main neurotransmitter they deal with. For example: for depression, the neurotransmitter serotonine is very important - these are different neurons than those who are sensitive to GABA.
Around the synaptic cleft, the space between two neurons, in first instance chemical substances are exchanged (think here of one of the medieval myths in medicine: that sleeping pills would contain 'unnatural chemical stuff' - totally untrue, all chemical stuff used is also made by nature in the brain).
This is too difficult to explain in full detail here (if you are interested: please order our 30 page booklet 'Neurophsyiology of sleep'). But you can see that neurotransmitters are passed on. Also you see red 'channels': these are 'ion pumps'. Some chemical substances can open and activate the ion pumps. This means that actively ions (like Na+ or Cl- or Potassium) are transported through the channel. Because ions have a chemical load, the 'pumping' of ions influences the electric charge of the neuron. In above example: the neurotransmitter receptors 'pump in' Cl- ions, so that the negative charge of the lower neuron increases. A neuron is typcially 'electrically saturated' when it has reached -70 mu Volt. The firts experiments around this were made in 1956 on the neuron of a giant squid, by Hodgkin and Huxley (Nobel prize).
In above graph you see the rest potential of -70 mV, which is nice for sleeping. But it can happen, due to other neurotransmitters, or due to a electric stimulus, that the neuron is suddenly 'depolarized' and goes from -70 mV to a slightly positive charge of +30 mV. After that the sodium (Cl-) and potassium pumps start working again in order to reestablish the resting potential. The electric discharge (of the negative electric load) is called 'firing' or 'spiking'. That can happen up to 30 to 50 times a second, which means 30-50 Hz. That however more resembles a state of panic than of rest and sleep....
Most people stay awake for half an hour, maximally two hours. That is sometimes necessary to calm down, think some things over, or in order to prepare a solution to somehting potentially threatening. BUT: the natural mechanism remains intact.
Chronic insomnia can be because:
- since a long while, life is like hell, and present and future still are 'hell' for you; you are afraid of them
- the anxiety or traum with a long time ago (even 20 years), but - despite present time and future do not represent something fearful for you, you still quickly 'shoot' into panic and your anxiety levels are too high and are not likely to come down out of itself, even over 10 or 20 peaceful years
- during insomnia, your main fear is: to REMAIN INSOMNIA! This is a very mean one, because it attracts all kinds of anxieties. After a few nights, life becomes unbearable and you become afraid to have to commit suicide now or later in your life. Paying mortgage and order extra pills (within FDA limits, but that docters will not give you) are by far your most important two monthly expenses.
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