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A New Discovery on How we Fall Asleep

Updated on February 27, 2012

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.

Longer Life

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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    • alipuckett profile image

      alipuckett 5 years ago

      I think I have the opposite problem. I sleep TOO much. I just don't feel rested unless I get 9 hours per night. Hopefully, that means that I'll live a long, long time! :)

    • Free2seethemoon profile image

      Free2seethemoon 5 years ago from Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean

      I hope so too! Thanks for commenting alipuckett.

    • profile image

      PWalker281 5 years ago

      This is really interesting. I know from experience what it feels like not to get enough sleep. I have recently been upping my melatonin dose from 1 to 2 mgs a night. I'm finding I feel much more rested and alert during the day, even though I start the morning off a bit groggy.

      Even though I've had a lot of problems getting a good night's sleep for a while now, I have been a meditator for over 30 years, so I'm hoping the regular meditation has helped to make up for the lost sleep.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • Free2seethemoon profile image

      Free2seethemoon 5 years ago from Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean

      PWaker281, I think it demonstrates how interconnected we are with the world around us. I mean, fruit flies? but that's another topic! I have not tried taking melatonin, but chamomile tea has the same effect on me. It makes me sleepy and I crash hard. I wake up a little groggy, but I think it is worth it. Thanks for commenting!

    • profile image

      PWalker281 5 years ago

      Yes, I use chamomile, too (in capsule form, sometimes tea) but that's more to reduce anxiety or settle an upset stomach. I think if I let go of caffeine completely (cup of green tea daily to manage allergies - it works!; sometimes a cup of instant coffee instead), the chamomile would be all I'd need.

    • Free2seethemoon profile image

      Free2seethemoon 5 years ago from Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean

      Good for you, I drink twice as much coffee as I should. It is starting to catch up with me though, so I am reducing the caffeine intake. The aroma of chamomile alone is so soothing for me, maybe it is the calming effect that makes me sleepy.

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