A New Discovery on How we Fall Asleep
A gene discovered in fruit flies may carry the answers to our own chronic sleep problems. This gene was dubbed ‘insomniac’ by the Rockefeller University scientists that discovered it, and seems to be what promotes sleep in fruit flies.
The discovery is significant because up until now, scientists could only guess at what actually controls our need to sleep. The newly identified fruit fly ‘insomniac’ gene may shed some light on our own triggers. Despite the need, sleep deprivation is a growing problem.
In the United States, an estimated 70 million people have chronic sleep disorders and do not get enough sleep. This problem lowers workplace productivity and can cause health problems. Scientists hope their latest discovery can lead to “drug targets that promote sleep” or treat other sleep disorders.
Believe it or not, fruit flies are a viable subject to study to learn about the human sleep situation. Like all living beings, they need sleep to function and survive. They sleep an average of 12-16 hours a day and when their sleep is disrupted, it causes health problems and reduces their lifespans.
If you are wondering how one can tell if a fruit fly is asleep, the researchers used an infrared beam device to alert them to when they were drifting off. As explained in another study of fruit flies (yes, there is more than one!) When the flies potassium ion channels are open, the fly is active and awake, when they are closed, the fly is asleep.
What did the researchers learn after studying 3,500 fruit flies’ sleep patterns? Flies with mutation in this gene had problems getting a good night’s sleep, so to speak.
Like humans, when the flies did not get enough sleep, they did not function as well, and had a harder time staying asleep. Those with mutations in this gene, appeared to get the least sleep, but they got it regardless of the time of day.
This is significant because until now, the assumption was that sleep is always linked to our circadian rhythm body clock. This gene says otherwise. It operates through a ‘protein degradation pathway.’
We can apply this discovery to human lives by first realizing that it may not only be our circadian rhythms that are off. In which case, taking a sleep aid to induce sleep could be warranted.
The other lesson learned is that a regular pattern of sleep leads to more sleep. As with the fruit flies, the more we sleep, the longer we sleep-the easier it is to fall asleep.
The fruit fly sleep studies revealed another interesting fact. Fruit flies that got less sleep, and poorer quality sleep, lived shorter lives. They were also restless and less coordinated. Looks like we have something in common with these insects after all!
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