Scientists May Now Be Able to “Reset” the Biological Clock

I’m originally from Australia, and I try to get home to visit my family at least twice a year. That means I’m very familiar with one of the most common complaints of frequent travelers: jet lag. Often it feels that by the time I’ve finally adapted to the new time in Australia, it’s time to hop back on a plane to the United States and go through the whole ordeal again.

Similarly to jet lag, shift workers who work the night shift and people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) are affected by changes to the brain’s biological clock. These conditions occur when the body’s circadian rhythms don’t match up naturally with day and night, leaving people awake at night and sleepy during the day.

Now scientists have discovered a new “reset button” for the brain’s biological clock, which could eventually lead to new treatments for seasonal affective disorder, reduce the adverse health effects of working the night shift, and - happily for me - possibly even cure jet lag.

The researchers found they could change the sleep/wake rhythms of mice by stimulating the neurons in their ‘master biological clock,’ which is in a specific place within the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN.) Until recently, it was thought that the firing rate of SCN neurons a result of activity in the biological clock’s activity. The new study found that properly adjusting the SCN neurons could actually make the biological clock reset itself. 

The scientists say that they’re not near a treatment for humans yet, but others are making progress to eventually use this new information in human therapies. For example, scientists are working on an experimental technique that uses viruses to insert new genes into cells, which could be used to implant optically sensitive proteins in SCN neurons that could be activated by an implanted LED.

I’m not sure I’m ready for a therapy that alters my genes and requires an implant, so I might be suffering from jet lag for many years to come. But for people who suffer from major depression as a result of seasonal affective disorder, I can imagine people lining up for an LED cure. Either way, the new discovery is exciting - and proves we still have a lot to learn about the brain’s biological clock. 

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