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By Roger Highfield on

Sleep: from the lab to Nobel prizes and the daily rhythms of life

Dr Roger Highfield explains how when we fall asleep, we celebrate the way that most life on our planet is adapted to the rotation of the Earth, and the daily rise and fall of the Sun in the sky.

A few days ago, the Nobel committee acknowledged the remarkable advances in our knowledge about the biological clock that ticks in living organisms, including humans, to allow them to anticipate and adapt to the sunlight that drives so much of the living economy of the world.

At the end of this month, between 24 and 26 October, the Science Museum will host scientists from the University of Oxford’s Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute and MRC Harwell, the international centre for mouse genetics run by the Medical Research Council.

As part of our TW (Tomorrow’s World) Live programme scientists will be opening up their own “Sleep Lab” to show visitors how researchers are exploring some of the most basic, and essential, questions about sleep, from what mice sleep patterns can reveal about our own circadian rhythms to experiments on people.

Oxford’s Dr Chris Harvey will demonstrate electroencephalography (EEG), which detects crackles of electrical activity in the brain through electrodes attached to the scalp, so that our visitors can see a common method used to measure brain activity during sleep.

Visitors will also learn about chronotypes (are you a ‘lark’ who likes to rise early, or an ‘owl’ who stays up late?) They will be able to add their own data to a graph showing age and tiredness, and learn if they are a lark or an owl.

MRC Harwell will also be showing footage of mice that they use to understand circadian rhythms, and visitors can direct robot “gene edited” mice through a maze.

Meanwhile, at the Manchester Science Festival on 26 October, I will discuss the results of the world’s biggest sleep experiment with Adrian Owen, a leading neuroscientist based at Western University, Canada.

Adrian Owen - Into the Grey Zone

One of the Trustees of the Science Museum Group is body clock expert Prof Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience, University of Oxford. He has, for example, discussed the importance of maintaining a good sleep cycle for the mental and physical health of young people and, with fellow university researcher Prof Denis Noble discussed the recent Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology awarded to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young for their pioneering efforts to peek inside our biological clock and elucidate its inner workings, a subject explored in more detail in the Science Museum’s Who Am I? update .

Using fruit flies, the Nobel laureates isolated a gene that controls the normal daily biological rhythm: in 1984, Hall and Rosbash, working in collaboration at Brandeis University in Boston, and Michael Young at the Rockefeller University in New York, succeeded in isolating the period gene.

Then Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash went on to discover that PER, the protein that is encoded by this gene, builds up in cells during the night, and is then broken down during the day. Thus, PER protein levels wax and wane over a 24-hour cycle within the body, in synchrony with the circadian rhythm.

Subsequently, they identified additional components of this machinery, exposing the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside living cells. Human clocks tick along very much the same lines to adapt our own physiology to the time of day.

Our health and wellbeing can be affected when the clock is disrupted, for example when we travel across several time zones and experience “jet lag”. There are also indications that chronic misalignment – for instance due to shift-work – between our lifestyle and the rhythm dictated by our inner timekeeper is associated with increased risk for various diseases, and that sleep deprivation affects mental performance.

To find out more about the TW Live event please visit the Tomorrow’s World webpage.

More information on the Manchester Science Festival can be found here.

Who Am I? Is located on Level 1 of the Wellcome Wing.