Disruptions to our circadian clocks might be the key to preventing major degenerative illnesses.
Researchers at Northwestern University examined fruit flies carrying a gene for Huntington’s disease and found that altering their sleep cycles effectively protected their neurons. Ravi Allada, the study’s lead researcher explains, “It seems counterintuitive, but we showed that a little bit of stress is good. We subtly manipulated the circadian clock, and that stress appears to be neuroprotective.”
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Circadian rhythms and the preservation of neurons
The team began by inducing “jet lag” into fruit fly models. Oddly enough fruit flies possess substantial neurological similarities to us, specifically in the neurons that control their sleep and wake cycles.
“In many cases, sleep disruption precedes any other symptom. But we didn’t know whether the circadian disruption is a cause of the disease or a consequence of the disease,” says Allada
There is also similar ground between us and fruit flies when it comes to the effects of Huntington disease, as they express many of the same symptoms exhibited in humans who have the disease. These symptoms include abbreviated life span, the build-up of diseased proteins in the brain which in turn kills neurons, and impaired motor function.
To recreate the effects of jet lag in one group of Huntington’s Disease-carrying fruit flies, researchers altered the environment they occupied by adjusting their exposure to light and darkness. This caused the flies to live a 20 hour day as opposed to a 24 hour one. For the second group of fruit flies, the researchers mutated a gene that regulates their internal circadian clocks.
In both instances, fewer neurons died. To the surprise of even the experts that conducted the study, the combination of introducing jet lag induced stress and muting a circadian clock-controlled gene led to the development of fewer diseased proteins in sick flies.
‘We thought inhibiting this gene that helps your proteins fold properly would make things worse, but they got better. It again shows a little bit of stress is probably good,” said Dr. Allada.
The researchers that led this important study published in the journal Cell Reports, plan on furthering research to see if the results also apply to other cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.
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