From a Sleep Review Magazine online release:
The current study points to the role of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that signals arousal and stress in the central nervous system. This chemical is present in low levels in the brain while we sleep, but when production ramps up it arouses our nerve cells, causing us to wake up and become alert. The study showed that norepinephrine also acts on a specific receptor, the beta2 adrenergic receptor, which is expressed at high levels in microglia. When this chemical is present in the brain, the microglia slip into a sort of hibernation.
New research shows that immune cells called microglia—which play an important role in reorganizing the connections between nerve cells, fighting infections, and repairing damage—are primarily active during sleep.
The findings, which were conducted in mice and appear in the journal Nature Neuroscience, have implications for brain plasticity, diseases like autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, and dementia, which arise when the brain’s networks are not maintained properly, and the ability of the brain to fight off infection and repair the damage following a stroke or other traumatic injury.