Gene variant helps determine circadian rhythms

A new article in the scientific journal Annals of Neurology has identified a gene that controls a number of what are called circadian rhythms.

Circadian rhythms are biological cycles that have a 24-hour duration. These include the times of day when a person is most alert, when blood pressure is highest, and when the heart is most efficient (Prescott).

The newly-discovered gene variant is not responsible for all the variance in personal circadian clocks, but it can, according to Bonnie Prescott, writing for Harvard Medical School’s website, “[change by] up to an hour your tendency to be an early riser or night owl.” While this might be interesting trivia by itself, it has far more wide-ranging implications for how our lives are planned.

Andrew Lim, the author of the original article and a postdoctoral fellow at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, notes that the inner biological clock “regulates many aspects of human…behavior, such as preferred sleep times, times of peak cognitive performance, and the timing of many physiological processes. It also influences the timing of acute medical events like stroke and heart attack.”

Research on the topic began in earnest while Lim was employed in a Rush University in Chicago study that was attempting to discern why older people were having more difficulty sleeping. These people would receive annual health exams and psychiatric testing to ascertain their sleeping and waking habits.

What the researchers were hoping to discover was a link between these patterns and the onset of degenerative mental disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

A more morbid implication of these results has also come to light. Clifford Saper, M.D., Ph.D., explains that “there’s even a circadian rhythm of death, so that in the general population people tend on average to be most likely to die in the morning hours. Sometimes around 11 a.m. is the average time.”

There are few processes, it seems, that are exempted from these daily cycles. With a deeper understanding of precisely how this gene variant affects the quality of the rhythms, it could be possible to ascertain when a certain person is at their peak physical and mental capacity and, conversely, when they are about to expire.

This could spell good news for frequent flyers and others who cross many time zones on a regular basis. Jet lag and shift work are known to disrupt these biological cycles and therefore can have significant negative health effects.

Not only this, but Lim also explains that medical professionals can use this information to help those who are suffering from heart-related illnesses:

“Working out which causes of death are influenced by gene variants like the one we identified may eventually lead to rational timed interventions–such as taking heart medications at particular times depending on which version of the gene variant one carries–to provide protection during an individual’s period of greatest risk.”

This research represents yet another concrete step toward a more complete scientific understanding of the body’s functions as they relate to genetics. Armed with this understanding, it has become clear, medical professionals can greatly improve the quality and individuality of care given to patients.