New research out of Johns Hopkins has identified the key factors in restless legs syndrome — findings that could lead to changes in the way RLS is treated and help to eradicate sleepless nights experienced by many people with the condition.
RLS, sometimes called "jimmy legs," causes an uncontrollable urge to move the legs, which can interrupt daily activities and disturb sleep. But despite the availability of drugs to treat RLS, many studies have shown that they do not improve sleep in most sufferers.
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The new study — led by Richard Allen, M.D., associate professor of neurology at John Hopkins University School of Medicine — was a two-part experiment, the first of which used MRI scans to examine the brains of 28 RLS patients and another 20 non-RLS patients. Dr. Allen’s team found that glutamate, a neurotransmitter involved in arousal, was abnormally high in the RLS group.
For the second part of the study, researchers tracked the sleep habits of the two groups. They found RLS patients tend to get less sleep — just 5.5 hours on average — and have higher glutamate levels than those without the condition.
Dr. Allen said the findings indicate glutamate and dopamine levels may explain why RLS also affects sleep, but that treating the condition with dopamine-related drugs and other medications that reduce glutamate in the brain doesn’t entirely alleviate insomnia.
He said the results could lead to developments in the way RLS is treated, potentially helping to eradicate sleepless nights for people with restless legs syndrome.
"Understanding this dichotomy and the interaction of these two differing systems may be important for understanding RLS neurobiology and developing better treatments for RLS, " the researchers concluded.
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