The Light Side of Sleep
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A sleeping womanHave you noticed you're more alert at certain times of the day and sleepy at other times? This is normal thanks to two control mechanisms called sleep/wake homeostasis and circadian biological clock. Together they regulate our sleep cycle. Our highest sleep potential is between 2:00 and 4:00 AM and a second window is 1:00 to 3:00 in the afternoon. But our sleep/wake pattern gets disrupted when we travel or have sleep disorders.

A new study just identified a protein that may be key to managing our body clock. The question is whether it could be manipulated to help people who can't sleep. The protein is called Eukaryotic Initiation factor 4E or EIF4E for short. Its function is to help our cells produce new proteins.

But EIF4E can only function if a small molecule called phosphate is attached to it. This attachment of phosphate is called phosphorylation. Only when it's phosphorylated can key proteins involved in sleep regulation be produced. When researchers in the study mutated the EIF4E in mice, it could not be phosphorylated. So when light conditions changed, the mice were not able to reset their biological clock.

This suggests by controlling the phosphorylation of the protein perhaps we could alter someone's sleep patterns and reset it to a normal rhythm. The challenge is that this protein isn't only in the hypothalamus of the brain, it functions throughout the body. A treatment would need to target only the brain's EIF4E. A drug to correct sleep disorders would impact millions of people whose lack of sleep can lead to serious diseases such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.