Decreasing sleep requirement with increasing numbers of neurons as a driver for bigger brains and bodies in mammalian evolution

Proc Biol Sci. 2015 Oct 7;282(1816):20151853. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2015.1853.


Mammals sleep between 3 and 20 h d(-1), but what regulates daily sleep requirement is unknown. While mammalian evolution has been characterized by a tendency towards larger bodies and brains, sustaining larger bodies and brains requires increasing hours of feeding per day, which is incompatible with a large sleep requirement. Mammalian evolution, therefore, must involve mechanisms that tie increasing body and brain size to decreasing sleep requirements. Here I show that daily sleep requirement decreases across mammalian species and in rat postnatal development with a decreasing ratio between cortical neuronal density and surface area, which presumably causes sleep-inducing metabolites to accumulate more slowly in the parenchyma. Because addition of neurons to the non-primate cortex in mammalian evolution decreases this ratio, I propose that increasing numbers of cortical neurons led to decreased sleep requirement in evolution that allowed for more hours of feeding and increased body mass, which would then facilitate further increases in numbers of brain neurons through a larger caloric intake per hour. Coupling of increasing numbers of neurons to decreasing sleep requirement and increasing hours of feeding thus may have not only allowed but also driven the trend of increasing brain and body mass in mammalian evolution.

Keywords: brain size; evolution; metabolite clearance; number of neurons; sleep.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cerebral Cortex / anatomy & histology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology
  • Mammals / anatomy & histology*
  • Mammals / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Organ Size
  • Sleep
  • Species Specificity
  • Time Factors