Not a single but multiple populations of GABAergic neurons control sleep

Sleep Med Rev. 2017 Apr;32:85-94. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2016.03.002. Epub 2016 Mar 12.


The role of gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) in sleep induction and maintenance is well accepted since most insomnia treatments target GABAa receptors. However, the population(s) of GABAergic neurons involved in the beneficial effect of GABA on sleep remains to be identified. This is not an easy task since GABAergic neurons are widely distributed in all brain structures. A recently growing number of populations of GABAergic neurons have been involved in sleep control. We first review here possible candidates for inducing non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep including the GABAergic neurons of the ventrolateral preoptic area, the parafacial zone in the brainstem, the nucleus accumbens and the cortex. We also discuss the role of several populations of GABAergic neurons in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep control. Indeed, it is well accepted that muscle atonia occurring during REM sleep is due to a GABA/glycinergic hyperpolarization of motoneurons. Recent evidence strongly suggests that these neurons are located in the ventral medullary reticular formation. It has also recently been shown that neurons containing the neuropeptide melanin concentrating hormone and GABA located in the lateral hypothalamic area control REM sleep expression. Finally, a population of REM-off GABAergic neurons located in the ventrolateral periaqueductal gray has been shown to gate REM sleep by inhibiting glutamatergic neurons located in the sublaterodorsal tegmental nucleus. In summary, recent data clearly indicate that multiple populations of GABAergic neurons located throughout the brain from the cortex to the medulla oblongata control NREM and REM sleep.

Keywords: EEG; GABA; GABAa receptors; Glycine; Muscle atonia; Paradoxical sleep; Slow wave sleep.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism
  • GABAergic Neurons / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Rats
  • Receptors, GABA / physiology
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders
  • Sleep, REM / physiology
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid / physiology*


  • Receptors, GABA
  • gamma-Aminobutyric Acid