In a recent study done by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, researchers used fruit flies to identify a gene that controls sleep.
“We spend -- or should spend -- a third of our lives sleeping,” says Amita Sehgal, PhD, Professor of Neuroscience and an Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). “The idea that so much time is spent in sleep is intriguing. Also, sleep deprivation has serious health consequences and impairs cognitive function.”
Sehgal and her researchers studied 3,500 fruit flies, who normally sleep for 12 hours a day. They found fruit flies that were surviving on 1 or 2 hours of sleep, or no sleep at all. The flies that didn’t sleep had a gene mutation that Sehgal and her team named Sleepless and they believe the Sleepless gene encodes a protein that affects whether potassium ion channels in the brain stay open or closed.
When the channels are open, the brain is connected and working – the fly is awake. When closed, the channel shuts down and the fly sleeps. The insomniac fruit flies had less of the Sleepless-produced protein.
The Sleepless flies lived about half as long as the flies that didn’t have the mutation. They also experienced restlessness and impaired coordination in the few hours of sleep they did get.
The Sleepless gene affects the homeostatic mechanism, which is the need for sleep.
"In the long term, we hope that human equivalents of our gene will be isolated and will not only further our understanding of human sleep, but perhaps also serve as drug targets to promote sleep or treat insomnia," says Sehgal.
This study was published in the latest issue of Science.