Researchers have discovered a gene which can cure ‘jet-lag’ and can prevent us from adjusting to new time zones.
Researchers at the University of Oxford and F. Hoffmann La Roche have identified a mechanism that limits the ability of the body clock to adjust to changes in patterns of light and dark. And the team show that if you block the activity of this gene in mice, they recover faster from disturbances in their daily light or dark cycle that were designed to simulate jet-lag.
In mammals, the circadian clock is controlled by an area of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) which pulls every cell in the body into the same biological rhythm. It receives information from a specialised system in the eyes, separate from the mechanisms we use to ‘see’, which senses the time of day by detecting environmental light, synchronising the clock to local time.
Until now, little was known about the molecular mechanisms of how light affects activity in the SCN to ‘tune’ the clock and why it takes so long to adjust when the light cycle changes.
To investigate this, the Oxford University team led by Dr Stuart Peirson and Professor Russell Foster, used mice to examine the patterns of gene expression in the SCN following a pulse of light during the hours of darkness. They identified around 100 genes that were switched on in response to light, revealing a sequence of events that act to retune the circadian clock.
Amongst these, they identified one molecule, SIK1, that terminates this response, acting as a brake to limit the effects of light on the clock. When they blocked the activity of SIK1, the mice adjusted faster to changes in light cycle.
"We’ve identified a system that actively prevents the body clock from re-adjusting. If you think about, it makes sense to have a buffering mechanism in place to provide some stability to the clock. The clock needs to be sure that it is getting a reliable signal, and if the signal occurs at the same time over several days it probably has biological relevance. But it is this same buffering mechanism that slows down our ability to adjust to a new time zone and causes jet lag," Dr Peirson explained.
The study was published in the journal Cell.