Nobel prize won for discoveries that could revolutionise the way we sleep

The Nobel prize for medicine has been awarded for research that would put you to sleep. But definitely in a good way.


Sometimes, the Nobel prizes can be given to scientists that achieve arcane or highly specific work. But, this time around, their discoveries get at one of the most fundamental things in the world: sleep, and how it changes our life.

The discovery in itself was interesting, though not especially practical. But scientists say that the discovery could be used to come to understand the mysteries of sleep, and to help discoveries that could change how we understand our body’s connection with time.

By coming to understand the way the clock in our bodies ticks and synchronises with the sun, we might be able to find how to use that same process to improve it, the winners said. Circadian rhythms affect some of the most fundamental parts of our life – our energy, health, fertility and other things – and understanding it can better improve it.

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“Before you’ve got the genes, everything is a black box,” Michael Hastings of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England, said. “Once you’ve got the genes, everything is possible.”

Scientists now understand that body clocks influence alertness, hunger, metabolism, fertility, mood and other physiological conditions. And researchers have begun to study the implications of erratic sleeping and working patterns or children who stay up late.

“We are learning more and more what impact it has to not follow your clock,” Nobel committee member Christer Hoog said. “If you constantly disobey your clock, what will happen? Medical research is going on with regards to that.”

Rosbash, a 73-year-old professor at Brandeis, said that he and his two colleagues worked to understand “the watch … that keeps time in our brains.” 

“You recognize circadian rhythms by the fact that you get sleepy at 10 or 11 at night, you wake up automatically at 7 in the morning, you have a dip in your alertness in the midday, maybe at 3 or 4 in the afternoon when you need a cup of coffee, so that is the clock,” he explained. 

“The fact that you go to the bathroom at a particular time of day, the fact if you travel over multiple time zones your body is screwed up for several days until you readjust — all that is a manifestation of your circadian clock.” 

Rosbash said the news that the trio had won the Nobel prize, which is worth 9 million Swedish crowns ($1.1 million), was “a little overwhelming”.

“It took my breath away, literally. I was woken up out of deep sleep and it was shocking,” he told Reuters.

“It’s great for basic science. It hasn’t had a tremendous amount of practical impact yet, so it’s really a very basic discovery … It’s good to have the attention on this kind of basic work.”

The three scientists’ work focused on flies. But they stood in as a kind of sample organism – and the discoveries apply across the entire animal kingdom, including for humans.

“This ability to prepare for the regular daily fluctuations is crucial for all life forms,” Thomas Perlmann, secretary of the Karolinska Institute Nobel Committee, told reporters.

“This year’s Nobel prize laureates have been studying this fundamental problem and solved the mystery of how an inner clock in our bodies can anticipate daily fluctuations between night and day to optimise our behaviour and physiology.”

Rosbash said he thinks most of the practical applications of the work lie in the future. 

A genetic mutation has already been found in some people who have a chronic sleeping problem, Young said. 

“This gives us a target to work on (and) ways of thinking we didn’t have before,” he said. “I think we’re going to run into this over and over.” 

One of the three winners, Jeffrey C Hall, said that the discovery had opened the opportunity to improve people’s health and their lives.

Hall said that once scientists understand how the clock normally works, “that gives you a chance, not an inevitability, but a chance to influence the internal workings of the clock and possibly to improve a patient’s well-being.”

Additional reporting by agencies

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