The human biological processes that occur in a period of 24 hours are known as circadian rhythms; they are driven by internal clocks that are mammalian in nature but at the same time very susceptible to a host of external factors that range from physical to environmental and from cultural to socioeconomic. The collective study of circadian rhythms and their impacts on public health is known as chronobiology, and advanced research in this field prompted the Nobel Committee of Medicine and Physiology to recognize the work of three American scientists who believe we are not getting enough sleep.
For more than three decades, Michael Rosbash and Jeffrey Hall from Brandeis University have worked with Michael Young from Rockefeller University to decipher many of the mysteries behind our internal and biological clocks, which seek to establish synchronism with the rotation cycles of Mother Earth. These scientists are now Nobel Laureates who have been granted $1.1 million to further their research.
How Fruit Flies and Humans are Alike
The existence of human internal clocks, which are not exactly the same as biological clocks, dates back to 18th century observations by astronomers. To gain understanding about the way our internal clocks function, the three scientists resorted to genetics and chose the fruit fly as the main research subject. This insect was chosen due to its 24-hour internal clock. The researchers identified a gene that controls protein levels to create important biological rhythms such as sleep, nutrition and hormone release.
The proper identification of the genes that control the various internal clocks in our bodies has not been an easy process. After identifying the first gene, it took the three American researchers 10 years to identify the next gene. The importance of discovering these genes and their functions cannot be understated: sleep disorders are not easy to detect, but they are often linked to other issues such as depression, heart disease, neurological problems, and even diabetes. At a time when genetic treatments are quickly developing, targeting sleep genes could lead to more medical breakthroughs.
Prior to genetic research into circadian rhythms, our understanding of jet lag among travelers and exhaustion among night shift workers was mostly limited to behavioral and environmental adjustments; to this effect, we often try to trick our internal clocks. For example, an American worker may start her night shift with pancakes, eggs and sausage, staples of a traditional breakfast, to avoid feeling sleepy. A Kenyan night worker may opt for a bowl of Ugali porridge with hot tea. In both cases, the intention is the same insofar as disorienting our internal clocks and making ourselves feel as if the day is just beginning.