New research points to a previously unknown mechanism that can reset our biological clocks, moving society one step closer to a “cure” for jetlag and the fatigue of long-term shift work.
Dr. David Bechtold, a researcher at the University of Manchester and lead author of the new study, said that the findings provide the first glimpse of how the enzyme casein kinase 1 epsilon (CK1epsilon) regulates our internal biological timers, or circadian clocks. "At the heart of these clocks are a complex set of molecules whose interaction provides robust and precise 24 hour timing,” he explained. “Importantly, our clocks are kept in synchrony with the environment by being responsive to light and dark information."
For humans, the circadian clock is extremely important, as it helps structure rest patterns, physiological rhythm, and metabolism. Going against it typically wreaks havoc on everything from performance to alertness. For travelers, this can be a pain.
The study, which is published in the journal Current Biology, shows that mice that lack this newly identified enzyme can adapt to new light-dark environments much faster than normal. According to the researchers, this is of great significance, as the observed adaptation roughly corresponds to the transition from one time zone to another.
"We already know that modern society poses many challenges to our health and wellbeing — things that are viewed as commonplace, such as shift-work, sleep deprivation, and jet lag disrupt our body's clocks,” Bechtold said, adding that these disruptions also contribute to an elevated risk of diseases like obesity and diabetes.
Curing Jet Lag
The study dovetails with a number of other efforts to track down the central mechanisms of the body clock and develop a “jet lag pill.” Another example is a paper from last year published in the journal Cell, in which researchers from the University of Notre Dame link circadian rhythm to a protein called SIK1.
While the mere discovery of a biological mechanism won’t do travelers and shift workers much good, it does provide a promising subject for continued research. "As this work progresses in clinical terms, we may be able to enhance the clock's ability to deal with shift work, and importantly understand how maladaptation of the clock contributes to diseases such as diabetes and chronic inflammation,” Bechtold told reporters.