Good news today for sufferers from jet lag, bipolar depression, interstellar or interplanetary colonists and others plagued by disorders relating to the circadian rhythm - or body clock.
Top boffins have announced today that they have developed a method of restarting stopped body clocks and perhaps of regulating the rate at which they tick. In general, the body clock needs to "tick" once every 24 horus to match up with an Earthly day as experienced in the vicinity of any given meridian.
"It can be really devastating to our brains and bodies when something happens to disrupt the natural rhythm of our body clocks," says Professor Andrew Loudon of Manchester University.
"This can be as a result of disease or as a consequence of jet lag or frequent changing between day and night shifts at work.
"We've discovered that we can control one of the key molecules involved in setting the speed at which the clock ticks and in doing so we can actually kick it into a new rhythm."
It seems that "fine adjustment" of the body clock is done using a protein called casein kinase 1, and scientific meddling with this can allow some interesting results.
"The clock mechanism 'ticks' once per day," says Loudon. "If you imagine each 'tick' as represented by the rise and fall of a wave over a 24 hour period, as you go up there is an increase in the amount of proteins in the cell that are part of the clock mechanism, and as you go down, these substances are degraded and reduce again. What casein kinase 1 does is to facilitate the degradation part.
"So you can imagine that the faster casein kinase 1 works, the steeper the downward part of the wave and the faster the clock ticks - any change in casein kinase 1 activity, faster or slower, would adjust the 'ticking' from 24 hours to some other time period."
Not only could this be handy in the case of interstellar colonists of the future needing to live on a planet with a different day length, the same method can be used to sort out people here on Earth whose body clocks are out of whack or even stopped altogether.
Loudon and his colleagues have tested this by finding some mice whose body clocks had stopped altogether. Using casein kinase 1 regulation, the boffins managed to restart the unfortunate murines' biological time tick.
"We've shown that it's possible to use drugs to synchronise the body clock of a mouse," enthuses the prof.
"It may also be possible to use similar drugs to treat a whole range of health problems associated with disruptions of circadian rhythms. This might include some psychiatric diseases and certain circadian sleep disorders. It could also help people cope with jet lag and the impact of shift work."
Full details of the research are available here for subscribers to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ®