Three scientists from the U.S. have won the 2017 Nobel Prize in medicine for their work in unravelling the mysteries of how our bodies keep time. A report by the BBC, summarised their research on fruit flies, which has helped to explain how ‘molecular feedback loops’ operate in all animals to keep time.
The research focused on an isolated section of DNA, in particular the ‘period’ gene and its production of a protein, known as PER. Levels of the PER protein rise during the night and fall during the day. Other genes were found to have an effect on the stability of PER, explaining why some people function better earlier in the day, and others better at night. The research looked at how the stability of PER affects sleep.
Speaking to the American news channel CNN, the Nobel committee reported that a person’s well-being is affected when there is a “temporary mismatch between our external environment and this internal biological clock.” This research breakthrough explains how our body clock controls wake and sleep cycles, and how its disruption has serious implications for our health. Also known as our circadian rhythm, our body clock not only controls when we want to go to sleep, it also drives changes in behaviour and body function.
Mood, hormone levels, temperature and metabolism are governed by circadian rhythms. Jet lag, we know, is caused by our body being out of sync. Rotational shift work has major implications for health. Any body clock disruption affects memory formation, and increases the risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Body clock disruption in our increasingly 24/7 society is a potential public health issue that needs to be addressed. Many people working shifts are in a constant state of jet lag. This also applies to anyone suffering from insomnia, which we know in modern society is increasingly problematic.
In a report by the Independent, Professor Matthew Walker, one of the world’s leading sleep scientists, argues, that “a catastrophic lack of sleep in modern society is killing us.”
Lighting, television, computer screens, smartphones, longer commutes, the blurring of the line between work and personal time, and a host of other aspects of modern life are contributing to sleep deprivation.
Talking to the Guardian, the leading neuroscientist, Professor Walker, urged institutions and law-makers to take action, saying that “no aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation. It sinks down into every possible nook and cranny. And yet no one is doing anything about it. Things have to change: in the workplace and our communities, our homes and families.”
You may want to speak to your GP, or your private doctor, if you are suffering from sleep deprivation.