Coupled flip-flop model for REM sleep regulation in the rat

PLoS One. 2014 Apr 10;9(4):e94481. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0094481. eCollection 2014.


Recent experimental studies investigating the neuronal regulation of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep have identified mutually inhibitory synaptic projections among REM sleep-promoting (REM-on) and REM sleep-inhibiting (REM-off) neuronal populations that act to maintain the REM sleep state and control its onset and offset. The control mechanism of mutually inhibitory synaptic interactions mirrors the proposed flip-flop switch for sleep-wake regulation consisting of mutually inhibitory synaptic projections between wake- and sleep-promoting neuronal populations. While a number of synaptic projections have been identified between these REM-on/REM-off populations and wake/sleep-promoting populations, the specific interactions that govern behavioral state transitions have not been completely determined. Using a minimal mathematical model, we investigated behavioral state transition dynamics dictated by a system of coupled flip-flops, one to control transitions between wake and sleep states, and another to control transitions into and out of REM sleep. The model describes the neurotransmitter-mediated inhibitory interactions between a wake- and sleep-promoting population, and between a REM-on and REM-off population. We proposed interactions between the wake/sleep and REM-on/REM-off flip-flops to replicate the behavioral state statistics and probabilities of behavioral state transitions measured from experimental recordings of rat sleep under ad libitum conditions and after 24 h of REM sleep deprivation. Reliable transitions from REM sleep to wake, as dictated by the data, indicated the necessity of an excitatory projection from the REM-on population to the wake-promoting population. To replicate the increase in REM-wake-REM transitions observed after 24 h REM sleep deprivation required that this excitatory projection promote transient activation of the wake-promoting population. Obtaining the reliable wake-nonREM sleep transitions observed in the data required that activity of the wake-promoting population modulated the interaction between the REM-on and REM-off populations. This analysis suggests neuronal processes to be targeted in further experimental studies of the regulatory mechanisms of REM sleep.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / physiology
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / physiology
  • Rats
  • Sleep Deprivation / physiopathology
  • Sleep, REM / physiology*
  • Synaptic Transmission
  • Wakefulness / physiology*


  • Neurotransmitter Agents

Grant support

This work was supported by NSF DMS-1121361 (JRD, VB), NIH RO1GM098578 (GAM) and the James S. McDonnell Foundation (GAM). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.