Occasionally dismissed even by sleep specialists, the problem of restless leg syndrome (RLS) is gaining attention in recent months thanks to a new study from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In the small study headed by Richard P. Allen, PhD, associate professor of neurology at Hopkins, MRI was used to shed light on RLS.
According to a report in Neurology, the MRI found glutamate—a neurotransmitter involved in arousal—in abnormally high levels in people with RLS. The more glutamate the researchers found in the brains of those with RLS, the worse their sleep.
If confirmed, the study’s results may change the way RLS is treated, Allen says, potentially erasing the sleepless nights (insomnia) that are the worst side effect of the condition.
“We may have solved the mystery of why getting rid of patients’ urge to move their legs doesn’t improve their sleep,” says Allen in an ION Publications recap. “We may have been looking at the wrong thing all along, or we may find that both dopamine and glutamate pathways play a role in RLS.”
For the study, Allen and his colleagues examined MRI images and recorded glutamate activity in the thalamus, the part of the brain involved with the regulation of consciousness, sleep and alertness. They looked at images of 28 people with RLS and 20 people without. As more is understood about the neurobiology, findings may not only apply to RLS, Allen says, but also to some forms of insomnia.