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Want To Reset Your Brain’s Master Clock? These Scientists Think They Know How

Researchers from Vanderbilt University are shooting light-sensitive cells with lasers in the hopes of a better night’s sleep

image via (cc) flickr user thelotuscarroll

For anyone who’s suffered from lousy sleep cycles, a new study out of Vanderbilt University may contain some good news. A team of researchers have, for the first time, determined that the body’s sleep patterns can be manipulated and its internal clock regulated, on a neurological level. By doing so, the researchers believe they can trick the body into avoiding things like jet lag and even seasonal affective disorder.

In the February 2nd edition of Nature Neuroscience journal, a team lead by Vanderbilt biological sciences professor Douglas McMahon describe stimulating and inhibiting a specific set of neurons in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) part of the brain previously believed to simply indicate, rather than regulate, the status of body’s internal clock. To trigger these neurons, a release from Vanderbilt explains, the team relied on a relatively new field science called “optogenetics.” They injected lab mice – which have a similar sleep cycle to humans – with genetic material that “express optically sensitive proteins into target cells in order to make the cells respond to light.” The researchers then used optical fiber and a laser to stimulate the now-light sensitive cells. The result, they found, was that by manipulating the mouse’s neurons they could, in effect, trigger a “reset” on its internal clock.

Of course, achieving the same result in humans is a much different challenge. As the release speculates:

This would involve an experimental technique that uses viruses to insert new genes into cells, which is considered a promising potential treatment for a number of diseases. This could be used to implant optically sensitive proteins in SCN neurons that could be activated by an implanted LED

Granted, viral genetic implantation and LEDs in the brain are probably not the sort of thing most people would line up to try. Still, that scientists have learned the body’s clock is able to be reset in the first place marks a significant step toward providing real, neurologically-based treatment for certain types of sleep disorders. And that’s something which should let us all sleep a little easier.

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