New York Magazine profiles Patrick Fuller, whose research about the brain stem’s “parafacial zone” could revolutionize insomnia treatments.
Fuller and his team at Harvard (and the University at Buffalo) spent more than three years searching for the hypothetical little node of brain-stem neurons in the brain stem that might counteract that effect. One of their methods was to introduce a virus into various areas of the mouse brains. (He showed me a refrigerated mouse brain encased in solution; it looked precisely like a tiny sculpture of a human brain. In fact, the two organs are remarkably similar and brain studies in mice tend to carry over well to humans.)
Among his investigators is a French scientist, Christelle Anaclet, whose job was to watch videos of mice sleeping for hours on end, stopping every ten seconds to see whether a note was required. One day in 2011, she happened to notice that mice who had been infected with the harmless virus in a largely unexplored lower-brain area adjacent to the facial nerve (which partly controls your face) were staying awake far longer than those who hadn’t been infected in the same area. So Fuller, a straightforward man, dubbed it the “parafacial zone.”