It’s broad daylight, but you’re tired. Or it’s the middle of the night, and you’re wide awake. Or you’ve flown halfway around the world, and your body is not in sync with what’s going on outside. Nothing you can do about it, right? That’s just the way your circadian rhythms are working. Or is there something that can be done?
The circadian rhythm is a cycle of chemical reactions in your body that give you your sense of time. Because these reactions are affected in part by the amount of light around you, the rhythm naturally aligns itself with the time of day. There are important health benefits to keeping this cycle properly aligned with the clock, and researchers have for some time pursued a way to better understand and manipulate circadian rhythm to treat problems like jet lag, fatigue, and insomnia.
Recently, one gene in particular has been identified as being of extreme importance to the circadian cycle. What could that mean for the medical community–and for you?
How It Works
The circadian rhythm is driven by a highly specialized type of tissue found in nearly all mammals, which either releases or absorbs chemicals into the brain depending on how much light that animal is receiving. Your brain will create different sensations, including that of being either tired or wide awake, or even hunger or fullness, depending on the state in which your circadian rhythm is found at any given moment. Individuals who deliberately alter sleep schedules–for example, staying up past your bedtime to watch TV or taking long naps during the day–can throw off this rhythm and confuse their body’s rhythms.
Scientists were able to isolate and breed out the gene NPAS4 from mice, resulting in several mice born without this gene or born in such a way that the gene did not express. When these mice were exposed to light, their circadian rhythms were significantly different than those of ordinary mice exposed to the same stimulus. This indicates that the NPAS4 gene in mammals acts much like the control rods in a power plant, a key piece in the puzzle of how the circadian system works.
Enhanced understanding of the circadian rhythm has enormous potential for practical implications in the modern workforce. People all over the world struggle to work evening shifts or want to beat jet lag. Having a firm grasp of how this gene influences the circadian rhythm may allow researchers to develop products or treatments that will help manage their sleep cycles without incurring any of the negative side effects that have been linked to a disrupted circadian rhythm.
This discovery linking circadian rhythms to a specific gene may allow researchers to determine ways to work with the gene. Is it possible to turn the gene on or off to correct or alter circadian rhythms? Only time will tell.