New findings by NYU faculty and researchers could lead to further advancements in sleep therapy.
The study, which focused on the circadian rhythms of fruit flies and neurons that regulate sleep cycles, was conducted by NYU Abu Dhabi associate p
rofessors Justin Blau and Kristin Gunsalus, along with post-doctoral researcher Kahn Rhrissorrakrai, doctoral students Dogukan Mizrak and Marc Ruben and undergraduate student Gabrielle Meyers.
Blau said the research revealed that at different times of day, different sets of genes are expressed in the central brain of the flies. For example, one gene called Ir was found to be higher at dusk than at dawn. The study also examined the levels of the rhythmically expressed genes in regular cells and artificially made cells.
Upon further experimentation, the researchers found that genes that are typically expressed in the morning could be manipulated to be expressed in the evening when using electricity and vice versa.
“Whether the cells look like morning or evening was really determined by what was going on inside those cells,” Blau said. “What we’re now saying is that the signals of the membrane can have a massive effect on gene expression, and some of those are actually being driven by the electrical activity rather than a molecular clock which is what some of us have been studying for years.”
The research took about two years to conduct and was published in Current Biology this year.
Even though these results need to be tested on different mammals before different sleep therapies can be designed for humans, Heinrich Gompf, a Harvard professor of Neurology, said potential treatments could evolve from this research.
“Treatments focusing on activating or inhibiting this pathway specifically in the clock cells may eventually help shift workers be more alert on the job or older people, who generally have shorter [internal] rhythms than the young, adjust their rhythms to the world around them,” Gompf said.
But Blau said it still remains unknown if sleep researchers will create a therapy allowing people to recover sleep.
Steinhardt freshman Nina Passero said the research is a huge leap forward in
“We’ve only discovered the tip of the iceberg,” Passero said. “Something like this, if it’s further researched or developed more, it could really benefit people that are fighting against their biological urges to sleep.”
Ultimately, Blau said the results have brought a new perspective to the field of sleep research.
“I think it’s going to shift the way we think about the ‘clock,’” Blau said.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Nov. 27 print edition. Emily Bell is a staff writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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