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Insomnia Sleep Disorders may have Genetic Causes

Updated on February 27, 2012

Humans suffer from insomnia for a variety of reasons. However, the condition is hard to cure and scientists are still learning about the pathophysiological processes that cause it. To help them understand these pathways better, researchers began studying fruit flies, who have similar sleep deviations and their own insomnia problems.

A Brief Definition

Insomnia is defined as ‘difficulty getting to sleep,’ or ‘difficulty staying asleep.’ Because a lack of sleep makes it difficult to train the body to fall asleep and stay asleep, the problem compounds.

Chronic insomnia may be the cause of an underlying sleep disorder or high stress hormone levels. It can also be caused by excessive caffeine intake, depression and general anxiety.

Aside from these possible causes, scientists want to know, is there something in the insomniac’s genetic code that also contributes to this sleep disorder? If there is, were they born with it, or did they develop a mutation? In fruit flies they have found some answers.

Natural Insomniacs

Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine found that some fruit flies naturally slept less, and had more difficulty staying asleep than others. In addition, these flies would try to make up for sleepless nights by sleeping more the following day, like humans.

Also like humans, those flies that suffered from insomnia had balance problems, were prone to fat gain and learned at a slower pace. The researchers bred insomniac flies that only slept one hour a day (the average for fruit flies is 12.) One would think these flies’ problems would build up and eventually kill them, but instead they adapted.

Researchers discovered adaptations by genes involved in sensory perception, metabolism and nerve cell activity. Although there were still consequences for their insomnia, it was clear their bodies were making changes to cope. At least two of these genes are also affected in human insomniacs.

Perhaps more importantly, researchers found saliva biomarkers present in both human and fruit fly insomniacs. Although more research is necessary, it appears that some people (and flies!) have insomnia in their genes.

Less Food, Less Sleep

In the same fruit flies bred to be insomniacs, it was determined that the drive for food could overcome the need for sleep. In other words, starving the flies allowed them to stay awake longer.

Food can induce sleepiness, but when we do not eat for long periods of time, the body compensates, and it does so without severe physical or mental impairment. At least, this is what researchers discovered in their fruit fly studies.

How do these flies do it? Their brains manipulate the storage and allocation of lipids, or fat molecules. The research leads scientists to believe that identification of the lipids involved in regulating sleep is the key to future sleep disorder treatments, without the side effects of current medications.

These treatments are still being developed, but what the study has discovered could be simple evolution. Our bodies learned to adapt to starvation, allowing us to stay alert enough to find food and ultimately, to survive.



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    • Peter Geekie profile image

      Peter Geekie 

      5 years ago from Sittingbourne

      Interesting look at a problem that has baffled the best minds for a long while. The production of melatonin has a great deal to do with it, particularly as it diminishes with age. Has this been noted with young and old fruit flies ?

      Voted interesting

      Kind regards Peter


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