From the WUSTL Newsroom…
A new discovery may help explain the surprisingly strong connections between sleep problems and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. Sleep loss increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and disrupted sleeping patterns are among the first signs of this devastating disorder.
Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the University of Pennsylvania have shown that brain cell damage similar to that seen in Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders results when a gene that controls the sleep-wake cycle and other bodily rhythms is disabled.
The researchers found evidence that disabling a circadian clock gene that controls the daily rhythms of many bodily processes blocks a part of the brain’s housekeeping cycle that neutralizes dangerous chemicals known as free radicals.
“Normally in the hours leading up to midday, the brain increases its production of certain antioxidant enzymes, which help clean up free radicals,” said first author Erik Musiek, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurology at the School of Medicine. “When clock genes are disabled, though, this surge no longer occurs, and the free radicals may linger in the brain and cause more damage.”
Musiek conducted the research in the labs of Garret FitzGerald, MD, chairman of pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania, and of David Holtzman, MD, the Andrew B. and Gretchen P. Jones Professor and head of the Department of Neurology at Washington University School of Medicine, who are co-senior authors.
The study appears Nov. 25 in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.
Musiek studied mice lacking a master clock gene called Bmal1. Without this gene, activities that normally occur at particular times of day are disrupted.
“For example, mice normally are active at night and asleep during the day, but when Bmal1 is missing, they sleep equally in the day and in the night, with no circadian rhythm,” Musiek said. “They get the same amount of sleep, but it’s spread over the whole day. Rhythms in the way genes are expressed are lost.”
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