This fall, American biologist Michael Rosbash got a deep sleep-disrupting call from Sweden at 5 a.m. Though disorienting, the news was worth waking up for: He and two fellow scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research on circadian rhythms.
The trio’s revolutionary work revealed the science behind your nighttime drowsiness, morning wakefulness, and the 3 p.m. productivity dip that has you reaching for another cup of coffee.
Decoding Our Biological Clocks
While other scientists had already established that circadian rhythms exist, the Nobel-winning Americans figured out how they work.
Rosbash, along with Jeffrey C. Hall and Michael W. Young, isolated a gene that controls daily sleep-wake schedules inside all living things. They also identified the proteins that activate it.
Dr. Michael Hastings, who studies chronobiology at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, told the BBC that before their work, “we really didn’t have any ideas of the genetic mechanism — body clocks were viewed as a black box on a par with astrology.” Though Rosbash asserts that the discovery itself was basic, its application could be revolutionary.
How Circadian Rhythms Impact Our Health
The scientists’ breakthrough research studied fruit flies, but all animal species have circadian clocks that work the same way. And not just one. There’s an internal clock in every cell.
Think of circadian rhythm as our biological response to Earth’s cycles of light and dark. It influences our energy, appetite, fertility, mood, and more. The graphic above depicts how we’re more alert and better coordinated in the morning.
During the night, our body restores itself as we sleep. Forcing your body to work otherwise is harmful to your health, which why jet lag, shift work, and late-night Netflix binges can be so detrimental.
But many people fight their internal clocks — and our bodies have noticed. Research has linked circadian disturbances to increased risk for obesity, autism, dementia, and cancer. By understanding the mechanisms that make our biological clock tick, scientists are hopeful we can find ways to improve or reverse these conditions.
Applying the Research to Sleep
Using Hall, Rosbash, and Young’s insights, researchers are developing circadian-correcting medicine for people whose clocks are affected by their environment or lifestyle. The medicine could also help counteract insomnia and other sleep disorders. The right biohack could even turn a night owl into an early bird. Sounds Nobel-worthy to us.