Panda offers an example of human circadian influenced behavior that is painfully familiar to all parents of newborns: Why do infants wake up in the middle of the night? It isn't because they aren't yet "trained" to a regular schedule, but because their internal circadian clocks haven't even developed.
"Once the clock is developed, the infant can naturally sleep through the night," Panda says. "On the other end of the scale, older people with dementia have sleep problems because their biological clock has degenerated."
In the case of humans and other vertebrates, a brain structure called the suprachiasmatic nucleus controls circadian responses. But there are also clocks throughout the body, including our visceral organs, that tell specific genes when to make the workhorse proteins that enable basic functions in our bodies, such as producing glucose for energy.
In the liver, genes that control the metabolism of fat and cholesterol turn on and off in sync with these clocks. But genes do not switch on and off by themselves. Their activity is regulated by the "epigenome," a set of molecules that signal to the genes how many proteins they should make, and, most importantly from the circadian point of view, when they should be made.
"We know that when we eat determines when a particular gene turns on or off, for example, if we eat only at nighttime, a gene that should be turned on during the day will turn on at night," Panda says.
For this reason, the epigenome is of particular interest for health, since we can control when we eat. An earlier study from Panda's lab, published last May in Cell Metabolism, suggested that we should observe a 16-hour fast between our evening and morning meals.
"In response to natural cycles, our body has evolved to make glucose at nighttime," Panda says. "But if on top of that you eat, you're creating
|Contact: Andy Hoang|