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Researchers Aim to Test Experimental Drugs to Alter Circadian Rhythms

Two neurology professors aim to begin testing drugs that could positively alter the body’s circadian rhythms (i.e., the body’s internal clock that control it’s biological workings from sleeping and eating to cardiovascular function).

Studies have shown that disrupting the body’s internal clock, for example by working night shift, can increase an individual’s risk for developing life-threatening diseases, including cancer and obesity. Discovering a drug to alter and stabilize an individual’s circadian rhythms could potentially help to treat jet lag, enhance the therapeutic benefits of cancer treatments, or even help night-shift workers stay more alert.

Dr. Louis Ptacek and Dr. Ying-Hui Fu also hope to develop a drug therapy to reduce how much sleep is necessary for an individual. Dr. Fu indicates that “if we can identify the pathways that can regulate our sleep duration then maybe someday we can come up with something better than caffeine.” The two professors are working in a University of California, San Francisco lab studying why some people are genetically prone to be early-morning risers, while others are genetically wired to be night owls. Dr. Fu is also researching why some people can biologically get by on unusually short amounts of sleep – less than six hours per night – and still feel fully refreshed.

While the researchers were studying early risers, their research stimulated a study on short-sleepers. The study includes participants from around the nation who submit a questionnaire and send in a blood sample or saliva swab to be genotyped. Dr. Ptacek and Dr. Fu genotype the samples looking for genetic mutations that could reveal any information about the body’s internal circadian clocks. Dr. Ptacek emphasized the importance of such research by stating, “These families are an important way to learn about the genetics of sleep and of clock function in humans. Understanding that is going to help understand the implications of sleep deprivation on our health.”


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