Regions of the brain maintain their territory with continuous activity: if activity slows or stops (e.g., because of blindness), the territory tends to be taken over by its neighbors. A surprise in recent years has been the speed of takeover, which is measurable within an hour. These findings lead us to a new hypothesis on the origin of dream sleep. We hypothesize that the circuitry underlying dreaming serves to amplify the visual system’s activity periodically throughout the night, allowing it to defend its territory against takeover from other senses. We find that measures of plasticity across 25 species of primates correlate positively with the proportion of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. We further find that plasticity and REM sleep increase in lockstep with evolutionary recency to humans. Finally, our hypothesis is consistent with the decrease in REM sleep and parallel decrease in neuroplasticity with aging.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience