Last night was one of those miserable toss-and-turn insomnia nights for me. And it was miserable. Somewhere in the midst of my sleepless misery, I started to wonder what the inside of my brain looked like. (I imagined lots of small firecrackers flicking on and off, with a low, irritating whine going constantly in the background. What can I say? I was very sleep-deprived.)

It’s almost as if Johns Hopkins researchers read my tired mind: According to research published in the March issue of the journal Sleep, they’ve figured out what makes the brains of chronic insomniacs so special, and it turns out I wasn’t that far off.

So here’s how it works: insomniacs brains have motor cortex neurons that are more excitable than average. That means their brains are constantly in a state of heightened information processing–they just can’t turn it off.
The research team also looked at plasticity, or responsiveness to change. They expected the insomniacs would have brains that would be harder to re-train, since they presumably were exhausted and cranky. Instead, they found the opposite — insomniacs’ motor cortex neurons were more plastic. In other words, the brains of the sleepless are more active…even when they shouldn’t be.

“Insomnia is not a nighttime disorder,” Hopkins neurologist Rachel Salas explained. “It’s a 24-hour brain condition, like a light switch that is always on. Our research adds information about differences in the brain associated with it.”