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What the discovery of the sleep disruption gene means to us

10-11-2014

What the discovery of the sleep disruption gene means to us

Sleep disruption, even the term makes you feel tired. Many people suffer from sleep disorders that cause them to have difficulty getting the quality and quantity of sleep they require. Over the past few decades research has shown just how detrimental lack of good quality sleep can be. In the past we had quite a limited understanding of the impacts of lack of sleep but now we have a reasonably comprehensive understanding. We now know that lack of sleep can affect our memories, our emotional state, our appetite, our ability to heal and so much more. Sleep really is a central component of our physical and psychological wellbeing.

Luckily we haven’t just been studying the negative impacts of lack of quality sleep, there have also been researchers studying the mechanics underlying sleep and sleep disruption. A recent discovery could mean that sleep disorders go the way of the dinosaur. Researchers have discovered the gene that is responsible for disrupting our sleep cycle and this discovery could herald new treatments.

The researchers were able to locate the abnormal gene that is responsible for sleep disruption and in the process they also found the protein that normal version of the gene produces to help regulate the body clock. Yes, not only have they found the abnormal gene responsible for those terrible nights’ sleep you have had but they have also found the necessary protein that is helps people sleep properly. New and effective treatments are not that far away.
Mark N. Wu, who is an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in US, said that, “We have now found the first protein ever identified that translates timing information from the body's circadian clock and uses it to regulate sleep.”

The research group, led by Wu, look at a huge number of fruit fly colonies that had a number of different genetic mutations. They focused on matching these mutations with their sleep patterns to try and identify which gene was causing the sleep disruptions. The group discovered that one colony of the long experimented upon flies had a mutation in a particular gene that they have called Wide Awake (or just Wake). This colony found it difficult to fall asleep at night, much the same as many people with insomnia.

Once they had identified a gene that they thought was responsible they then looked for it in other animals, including mice, rabbits, chickens, worms and humans. They found it in every single animal they looked at.

They found that in mammals the gene was located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus, which is where the body clock is located.

As Wu said, “Sometimes we discover things in flies that have no direct relevance in higher order animals. In this case, because we found the protein in a location where it likely plays a role in circadian rhythms and sleep, we are encouraged that this protein may do the same thing in mice and people.”

In the near future, we could be taking medication that has been derived from this protein, we make use the Wake gene to help us Sleep.


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