New York, March 14: Sleep disorders may soon become things of the past as researchers have now identified a gene that disrupts the biological clock.
The finding also led the researchers to the protein made by a normal copy of the gene that properly regulates sleep cycles.
“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,” said Mark N. Wu, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in US.
In their hunt for the molecular roots of sleep regulation, Wu and his colleagues studied thousands of fruit fly colonies, each with a different set of genetic mutations, and analysed their sleep patterns.
They found that one group of flies, with a mutation in the gene they would later call Wide Awake (or Wake for short), had trouble falling asleep at night, a malady that looked a lot like sleep-onset insomnia in humans.
The researchers found the same gene in every animal they studied: humans, mice, rabbits, chickens, even worms.
As the researchers looked to see where Wake was located in the mouse brain, they found that it was expressed in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), the master clock in mammals.
“Sometimes we discover things in flies that have no direct relevance in higher order animals,” Wu said.
“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,” he said.
The researchers hope that by manipulating Wake, possibly with a medication, shift workers, military personnel and sleep-onset insomniacs could sleep better.
The study appeared in the journal Neuron.