“Springing forward” this coming Sunday may throw your body for a loop, but understanding the minute mechanics of our internal clocks could make all the difference in treating disruptions of the human sleep cycle, says Professor Pat Lakin-Thomas, of the Department of Biology, Faculty of Science & Engineering.
“The changeover to daylight savings time can have an effect on our bodies, depending on how well we look after ourselves,” Lakin-Thomas says. “For most people, it would be like flying through a one-hour time change. You would probably notice that for a few days you would be waking up a bit earlier or later than normal.”
The sensation is triggered by disruptions to our circadian rhythm, the biological mechanism that literally makes us tick. It can become disabling for shift workers, jet-lagged travellers, and students pulling late-night study sessions. The problem, especially with more severe disruptions, is that the brain’s internal clock – quick to reset due to intake of sunlight – might be getting out of sync with that of other organs, which are slower to reset.
“The clock in your brain can get out of sync with the clock in your liver,” says Lakin-Thomas. “Although we have known for a long time that there is a master clock in the brains of mammals like us, we now know that each cell in the body may have its own internal clock. The mystery is what exactly these clockworks are and how they communicate with each other.”
Part of the explanation may lie in Lakin-Thomas’ research. She is jet-lagging a common laboratory-grown fungus and observing the rhythm by which these cells express certain genes and chemicals. Part of this process involves tracking a mutation that affects a lipid (a fatty molecule) within the fungus. This mutation makes the cells run on a 60-hour day instead of a 24-hour day. If human cells behave like the fungus cells, then this research might identify targets for resetting the clocks in humans.
For now, Lakin-Thomas says the most effective way to compensate for the effects of jet lag, and the upcoming time change, is to get outdoors and absorb as much sunlight as you can – safely, of course.
“Unfortunately, you can’t speed the recovery process by shining a light on your liver, but we’re hoping that this research will mean that someday, metaphorically speaking, you can.”