The discovery that a single gene, called Lhx1, regulates sleep and wake rhythms. provides scientists with a potential therapeutic target to help night-shift workers or jet lagged travelers adjust to time differences more quickly.
Thee master clock responsible for establishing our bodies cyclic circadian rhythms and keeping all the body's cells in sync is the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a small, densely packed region of about 20,000 neurons housed in the brain's hypothalamus.
Coupling to light
More so than in other areas of the brain, the SCN's neurons are in close and constant communication with one another. This close interaction, combined with exposure to light and darkness through vision circuits, keeps this master clock in sync and allows people to stay on essentially the same schedule every day. The tight coupling of these cells also helps make them collectively resistant to change. Exposure to light resets less than half of the SCN cells, resulting in long periods of jet lag.
In the new study, researchers disrupted the light-dark cycles in mice and compared changes in the expression of thousands of genes in the SCN with other mouse tissues. They identified 213 gene expression changes that were unique to the SCN and narrowed in on 13 of these that coded for molecules that turn on and off other genes. Of those, only one was suppressed in response to light: Lhx1.
Studying a mouse version of jet lag–an 8-hour shift in their day-night cycle–the scientists found that those with little or no Lhx1 readjusted much faster to the shift than normal mice. This suggests that because these neurons are less in sync with one another, they are more easily able to shift to a new schedule, though it is difficult for them to maintain that schedule, says Satchidananda Panda, a Salk associate professor who led the research team.
The new results take the group a step closer to their goal of creating cell regenerative therapies that restore the SCN and ameliorate sleep problems.
It's possible that the severity of many dementias comes from sleep disturbances," says Satchidananda Panda, a Salk associate professor who led the research team. "If we can restore normal sleep, we can address half of the problem
Satchidananda Panda, associate professor, Salk Institute for Biological Studies.