There are few things more annoying than lying awake at night, staring at the ceiling, waiting for Mr. Sandman to pay a visit. But if you are having trouble snoozing, take comfort, because researchers at Florida Atlantic University may have identified a gene for sleep deprivation. Findings from the study published in Current Biology states that the conserved gene “translin” is integral in the metabolic regulation of sleep.
A person's metabolic state is closely related to sleep patterns and their internal clock. You may have noticed that when you haven’t eaten for a few hours, it's harder to fall asleep. If you are in a postabsorbative (starving) metabolic state it will be more difficult to sleep. Having a bedtime snack doesn't guarantee a good snooze, but it can certainly help. Sleep loss is associated with increased appetite, and those suffering from chronic sleep loss are at a higher risk for developing metabolic conditions such as obesity, cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes. Alex C. Keene, Ph.D., associate professor at Florida Atlantic University and corresponding author explained, "In humans, sleep and feeding are tightly interconnected, and pathological disturbances of either process are associated with metabolism-related disorders."
Though it has wide repercussions for our health, we've only scratched the surface of this topic, says Keene, "Despite the widespread evidence for interactions between sleep loss and metabolic dysfunction, little is known about the molecular basis of this interaction and how these processes integrate within the brain."
As it turns out, fruit flies don’t like to go to bed on an empty stomach, either. What we commonly think of as tiny pests hovering over our fruit bowl may actually hold the key to disturbed sleep. These flies have similar nocturnal patterns to humans — sleeping at night, having disturbed sleep by stimulants such as caffeine, and suffering memory impairment if they get a poor night’s rest. For these reasons, Keene found these flies to be the perfect test subjects, telling IBTimes UK, "We use fruit flies which are similar to humans to look at more complex biological models."
When fruit flies are hungry, they will stay awake and search for food. Researchers tested fruit flies in different scenarios of sleep and starvation in order to individually isolate each gene, to see which kept the fly awake in its quest for food. After screening 12,000 of them, what they found was that the protein translin, when reduced in neurons, would allow a hungry fly to sleep peacefully. Encoding translin proved that the gene was not required for the flies to realize that they were starving and make them behave as such, but its presence was necessary to keep the flies awake when food was not present. Hence, the protein's only use was to deprive these hungry and tired flies of their precious 40 winks.
“While many genes have been identified as genetic regulators of sleep or metabolic state, mounting evidence from our study indicates that translin functions as a unique integrator of these processes,” said Kazuma Murakami, co-first author and a Ph.D. student in the FAU. Keene added, "Our study is important, because we think that if we are able to find genes that are integrate both sleep deprivation and metabolic state, we will be able, on the long term, to find clues to treat metabolic problems."
While this may sound great for us, who knows when these little flies will finally be able to get some rest!