Scientists exploring the brain for answers to certain sleep disorders may have been looking in the wrong place. A new study shows that a protein in muscle can lessen the effects of sleep loss in mice, a surprising revelation that challenges the widely accepted notion that the brain controls all aspects of sleep. The new finding – the result of a collaboration between the University of Texas (UT) Southwestern’s Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute and two other medical centers – gives scientists a new target besides the brain to develop therapies for people with excessive sleepiness. “This finding is completely unexpected and changes the ways we think sleep is controlled,” said Dr. Joseph S. Takahashi (photo), Chairman of Neuroscience at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The research published online on July 20, 2017 in eLife demonstrates how a circadian clock protein (BMAL1) in the muscle regulates the length and manner of sleep. The article is titled “Bmal1 function in skeletal muscle regulates sleep.” While the protein’s presence or absence in the brain had little effect on sleep recovery, mice with higher levels of BMAL1 in their muscles recovered from sleep deprivation more quickly. In addition, removing BMAL1 from the muscle severely disrupted normal sleep, leading to an increased need for sleep, deeper sleep, and a reduced ability to recover. Dr. Takahashi said the finding may eventually lead to therapies that could benefit people in occupations requiring long stretches of wakefulness, from military to airline piloting.
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