American researchers have identified sleep-related treatment as a possible means of relief from fibromyalgia, a chronic condition that causes pain and fatigue. Their study, published in the "Journal of Neurophysiology," opens up the way for new drugs targeting sleep problems in patients.

Fibromyalgia is characterized by chronic, diffuse pain in the muscles and joints, which can prove debilitating in daily life. This is often accompanied by intense fatigue. The exact cause of this painful condition remains unknown -- although it's believed that inflammatory and autoimmune factors may be involved -- and it has no specific treatment. It affects 2 to 6 per cent of the population in industrialized nations and 80 per cent of sufferers are women.

Another symptom of the disorder is disturbed sleep, as deep sleep brain wave patterns are disrupted by brain waves that correspond to wakefulness. This has been identified as a potential cause of pain relating to the condition, or its worsening.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have investigated the causes of abnormal sleep patterns in fibromyalgia patients. They went on to examine the action of sodium oxybate (sold under the brand name Xyrem), a drug already identified as improving sleep in fibromyalgia patients.

The scientists found that the drug caused changes in the thalamus, a region of the brain that regulates sleep, by restoring normal deep sleep brain wave patterns. More precisely, they identified the action of the drug on channels linked to a neurotransmitter called GABA, which inhibits the action of the nervous system and affects sleep.

The researchers' findings open up the way for potential sleep-related treatments for the condition. By specifically targeting neurotransmitters in the thalamus, it may be possible to restore sleep patterns and bring relief to fibromyalgia patients.