The neurochemistry of waking and sleeping mental activity: The disinhibition-dopamine hypothesis

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This paper describes a hypothesis related to the neurochemical background of sleep-waking mental activity which, although associated with subcortical structures, is principally generated in the cerebral cortex. Acetylcholine, which mainly activates cortical neurons, is released at the maximal rate during waking and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep dreaming stage. Its importance in mental functioning is well-known. However, brainstem-generated monoamines, which mainly inhibit cortical neurons, are released during waking. Both kinds of influences contribute to the organized mentation of waking. During slow wave sleep, these two types of influence decrease in intensity but maintain a sufficiently high level to allow mental activity involving fairly abstract pseudo-thoughts, a mode of activity modelled on the diurnal pattern of which it is a poor reply. During REM sleep, the monoaminergic neurons become silent except for the dopaminergic ones. This results in a large disinhibition and the maintained dopamine influence may be involved in the familiar psychotic-like mental activity of dreaming. Indeed, in this original activation–disinhibition state, the increase of dopamine influence at the prefrontal cortex level could explain the almost total absence of negative symptoms of schizophrenia during dreaming, while an increase in the nucleus accumbens is possibly responsible for hallucinations and delusions, which are regular features of mentation during this sleep stage.

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