Muscle, not brain, may hold answers to some sleep disorders

August 3, 2017, UT Southwestern Medical Center
Dr. Joseph S. Takahashi, Chairman of Neuroscience. Credit: UT Southwestern

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 the 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 finding - a collaboration between 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, Chairman of Neuroscience at UT Southwestern Medical Center and Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The research published in eLife demonstrates how a circadian clock protein in the muscle - BMAL1 - regulates the length and manner of 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 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.

"These studies show that factors in muscles can signal to the brain to influence sleep. If similar pathways exist in people, this would provide new drug targets for the treatment of sleep disorders," said Dr. Takahashi, holder of the Loyd B. Sands Distinguished Chair in Neuroscience.

The study was a collaboration between UT Southwestern Medical Center, Morehouse School of Medicine, and the University Florida. It was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, National Institute of General Medical Sciences, National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Mysteries of Sleep

What: A new study shows that a protein in the muscle can lessen the effects of in mice, a revelation that challenges the widely accepted notion that the brain controls all aspects of sleep.

Key findings: Mice with higher levels of the BMAL1 protein in their muscles recovered from sleep deprivation more quickly. Removing BMAL1 from the led to a reduced ability to recover.

Why it matters: Scientists have a new target besides the to develop therapies for people with . Such treatments could benefit people in occupations requiring long stretches of wakefulness, from military to airline piloting.

Explore further: How much sleep do you really need?

Related Stories

How much sleep do you really need?

July 20, 2017
(HealthDay)—Health initiatives typically center on diet and fitness. But the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society state that getting enough sleep is just as important as eating right and exercising.

Researchers identify first two genes regulating sleep in mice using genetic screening

November 2, 2016
Researchers have identified the first two core genes that regulate the amount of deep sleep and dreaming, a key development they believe will lead to the discovery of a network of related genes controlling sleep.

Wake-promoting compound validated—the first step to deliver a magic bullet for curing narcolepsy

May 30, 2017
Narcolepsy, a serious sleep disorder in which patients often fall asleep uncontrollably, has been incurable because no effective therapeutic agents are available to date. Recent findings by Japanese scientists in the sleep ...

Neuroscientists identify cell type in the brain that controls body clock circadian rhythms

March 17, 2015
UT Southwestern Medical Center neuroscientists have identified key cells within the brain that are critical for determining circadian rhythms, the 24-hour processes that control sleep and wake cycles, as well as other important ...

How sleep deprivation harms memory

August 23, 2016
Researchers from the Universities of Groningen (Netherlands) and Pennsylvania have discovered a piece in the puzzle of how sleep deprivation negatively affects memory.

Lack of deep sleep may pave way for Alzheimer's, researchers say

January 18, 2016
Forget about needing beauty sleep. It's your brain that may suffer the most from a lack of deep shut eye.

Recommended for you

How do we lose memory? A STEP at a time, researchers say

March 23, 2018
In mice, rats, monkeys, and people, aging can take its toll on cognitive function. A new study by researchers at Yale and Université de Montréal reveal there is a common denominator to the decline in all of these species—an ...

Brain's tiniest blood vessels trigger spinal motor neurons to develop

March 23, 2018
A new study has revealed that the human brain's tiniest blood vessels can activate genes known to trigger spinal motor neurons, prompting the neurons to grow during early development. The findings could provide insights into ...

Being hungry shuts off perception of chronic pain

March 22, 2018
Pain can be valuable. Without it, we might let our hand linger on a hot stove, for example. But longer-lasting pain, such as the inflammatory pain that can arise after injury, can be debilitating and costly, preventing us ...

From signal propagation to consciousness: New findings point to a potential connection

March 22, 2018
Researchers at New York University have discovered a novel mechanism through which information can be effectively transmitted across many areas in the brain—a finding that offers a potentially new way of understanding how ...

Using simplicity for complexity—new research sheds light on the perception of motion

March 22, 2018
A team of biologists has deciphered how neurons used in the perception of motion form in the brain of a fly —a finding that illustrates how complex neuronal circuits are constructed from simple developmental rules.

Focus on early stage of illness may be key to treating ALS, study suggests

March 22, 2018
A new kind of genetically engineered mouse and an innovation in how to monitor those mice during research have shed new light on the early development of an inherited form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.