Wakefulness is a daily recurring brain state and state of consciousness in which an individual is conscious and engages in coherent cognitive and behavioral responses to the external world such as communication, ambulation, eating, and sex. Being awake is the opposite of the state of being asleep in which most external inputs to the brain are excluded from neural processing.
Effects upon the brain
The longer the brain has been awake, the greater the spontaneous firing rates of cerebral cortex neurons with this increase being reversed by sleep. Another effect of wakefulness (which may or may not be related to this) is that it lowers the small stores of glycogen held in the astrocytes that can supply energy to the brain's neurons—one of the functions of sleep, it has been proposed, is to create the opportunity for them to be replenished.
Maintenance by the brain
Wakefulness is produced by a complex interaction between multiple neurotransmitter systems arising in the brainstem and ascending through the midbrain, hypothalamus, thalamus and basal forebrain. The posterior hypothalamus plays a key role in the maintenance of the cortical activation that underlies wakefulness. Several systems originating in this part of the brain control the shift from wakefulness into sleep and sleep into wakefulness. Histamine neurons in the tuberomammillary nucleus and nearby adjacent posterior hypothalamus project to the entire brain and are the most wake-selective system so far identified in the brain. Another key system is that provided by the orexins (also known as hypocretins) projecting neurons. These exist in areas adjacent to histamine neurons and like them project widely to most brain areas and associate with arousal. Orexin deficiency has been identified as responsible for narcolepsy.
Research suggests that orexin and histamine neurons play distinct, but complementary roles in controlling wakefulness with orexin being more involved with wakeful behavior and histamine with cognition and activation of cortical EEG.
In a special case, the word wakefulness is used as a synonym for mindfulness. Wakefulness is described by the American physician and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn as a state of mindful awareness. By being fully awake in the present moment, Kabat-Zinn suggests that we can live fully and with great awareness and intent, which has the potential to give us an improved sense of peace, contentment and well-being.
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