In experiments with college students and lab worms, scientists find new genetic clues to sleep.
Researchers intent on understanding how too little sleep can undermine health have long suspected a relationship between short sleep duration and the actions of specific genes, but finding the genes involved has proven difficult. Now, a team of scientists based at Brown and the Warren Alpert Medical School has identified genes carrying epigenetic tags that are likely associated with shorter sleep in young adults.
“Before this study, specific genes with epigenetic tags hadn’t been linked to how much sleep people get,” says Anne Hart, PhD, professor of neuroscience and co-corresponding author of the study online in the journal Sleep.
“This is the first time we’ve found genes important in sleep that might be tagged this way. It’s exciting to open up a new area in the sleep field. In the long run, this work should help us understand why getting too little sleep causes so many problems for people and should lead to better treatments for those who have trouble sleeping,” Hart says.
Epigenetic tags in genes are chemical alterations of the DNA that accrue based on life experiences, such as stress or exposure to environmental substances. This study focused on a specific epigenetic tag, called DNA methylation, which can affect how genes are expressed and therefore change behaviors like sleep.
Previous research showed that methylation might change at the whole genome level with inadequate sleep. But in the new study, the researchers went much deeper and looked for specific genes with different amounts of DNA methylation tags in people who got a normal amount of sleep every night and comparable people who slept considerably less.
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