Friday, February 01, 2008

The dewy glow of a morning lark's skin...

My son called me at 6 a.m. today. Lest you think 'what an early bird that teen!', let me tell you he'd not yet been to bed. He'd just pulled one of those college all-nighters, and was calling me to request a noon wake-up call so that he wouldn't miss his 12:30 class...yet again.

Researchers have devised an innovative way of finding out whether folks are morning larks or night owls (as opposed to, say, just asking them). European biochemists recruited a group of willing subjects* who self-identified as morning or evening persons. The scientists then nipped a couple of skin samples from the group and cultured the cells in the lab. They then minced up a few fireflies, and inserted the gene that makes the insects glow into the gene that regulates the internal clock of human skin cells.

The purpose of melding human DNA with that of fireflies was to get a visual on the cells' 'inner slave clocks', that part of our body that responds to the brain's call to bounce out of bed or snooze onward. Indeed, these skin samples began glowing like a Midwestern summer's eve at a time determined by the subjects reported biorhythms. Now how bizarre must that have been--these cell communities in petri dishes switching on and off there in the lab based on the behavior of their previous human owners.

Interesting, but what's the point? Says chronobiologist Achim Kramer who helped design this study, "Pinpointing individual clock cycles could pave the way for personalized sleep and drug therapies." If they can pave a way to get my son up in the a.m., that is scientific progress at its best.

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*I used to dub them volunteers, but discovered in a recent New Yorker article that many of these experimental subjects are 'professional guinea pigs,' often making an adequate living from payments for participation in studies like this.

8 comments:

Ruth said...

I wonder if this research could help people who work shifts, many of whom work in health care and have to pull all nighters regularly?

Dr. Smak said...

That research is as fascinating as it is bizarre...

Mauigirl said...

Very interesting. I know for sure I'm no lark!

Cilicious said...

lol about your son.
And fascinating to hear about the lightning bug biorhythms.
Maybe such research could be helpful, but I wonder if it could assuage that age-old problem: when morning larks such as myself contend with night owls like my husband (and vice versa).

dorsey said...

I wondered where all the fireflies had gone!
I remember my surprise (years ago) when I learned people made a living as professional sniffers for deoderizing products. Don't know if it's still true, but they used to walk around smelling armpits etc. (early days of FDS). And of course, there were the sniffees--I hope they were well-paid.

tobiwan said...

Well, I have always ,OK up until recently, been a night owl-and I work the "graveyard" shift. I wonder how, when & if one's clock really changes, or am I just tired of spending the day sleeping, sinve I enjoy the sunshie too. I know that sounds absolutly antithical- but its true. Do lightning bugs ever light up during the day??

Anonymous said...

It took me decades to be correctly diagnosed with Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder. It has dominted every aspect of my personal, educational and professional life, every single day, because I believed all experts who told me it was something I could control somehow.

Using a combination of blue-light-blocking goggles and adding blue LED light box therapy in the morning has finally helped, but I still require melatonin and ritalin to function on a compromised sleep schedule.

Since more than 20% of teens have this as a temporary syndrome, there should be a huge increase in educational achievement if kids are offered a more delayed schedule. My own circadian rhythm problem is permanent and genetic, but I see too many teens dropping out of school over 7:30 AM class times they can't get up for. Tragically, this is sometimes seen as a moral or willpower issue.

Femail doc said...

Dear Anon,

All kidding aside, my children both have delayed sleep phase disorder, and its effects are indeed ruinous. My daughter has tried all sorts of tricks with stimulants, Provigil, Wellbutrin, etc. to no avail.

I recently heard of an antidepressant augmenting agent called Deplin. "Tell patients to take it in the a.m.," warned the rep, "it will keep them awake."

Whenever I hear any inkling that a med may keep someone awake, I send samples to my daughter. After 3-4 days of Deplin, she began to note a better mood on awakening and a much easier time of getting up. The effect has improved over time. You might want to check it out--I have info on my blog in a more recent post.