What fruit flies can teach us about human sleep patterns
Thursday, October 12, 2017
One of the most prestigious awards for medicine recently went to a group of Americans studying aspects of sleep in fruit flies. The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to a trio of scientists: Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young.
For many, the what, where, how and why surrounding the life of flies may seem irrelevant to the health and well-being of mankind. However, the researchers used fruit flies to isolate a gene that controls their daily biological rhythms and demonstrated how this gene has a cyclical accumulation of protein in cells during the night and a degradation during the day.
This genetic clock regulates functions of behavior, sleep, temperature and body metabolism as well as hormones. The researchers have studied the inner biological circadian workings of the fruit fly as the mechanisms have relevance for almost all life.
Rosbash is the Peter Gruber Endowed Chair in Neuroscience and professor of biology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts; and Hall is professor emeritus of biology at Brandeis University. Sharing the prize was Young, the Richard and Jeanne Fisher Professor and Vice President of Academic Affairs at the Rockefeller University in New York.
The hope is that understanding circadian functions will enable the development of better treatments for so many diseases. Circadian dysfunctions have been identified in many serious diseases.
Disruptions in rapid eye movement sleep cycling is a marker of disease in Parkinson's disease. The circadian disruptions in Alzheimer's disease have long been recognized, and aspects of the disorders are referred to as "sundowning." There are also disruptions in circadian-related hormones in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
With a greater understanding of circadian functions at a basic level, we will be able to make gains in understanding the disease processes that have circadian-related pathology.
Even those without circadian-related disease symptoms can have reduced quality of life when circadian patterns are disrupted. This has been demonstrated in those who routinely perform shift work. Professional athletes can suffer degradation in performance when there are greater deviations in normal circadian patterns. And those who sleep in environments that have irregular events that disrupt sleep such as police sirens and gunfire have been shown to have reduced performance.
"This Nobel Prize is a fitting testament to their remarkable work, which has changed our understanding of the rhythms of life," Brandeis University President Ron Liebowitz said.
The rhythms of life are remarkable for both fruit flies and mankind.
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