Thursday, January 23, 2020
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Circadian rhythm studies win a Nobel Prize

This morning in Sweden, it was announced that Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash, of Brandeis University, and Michael Young, of Rockefeller University, will share the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries of the molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm, commonly called the biological clock.


Hall, Rosbash, and Young (nobelprize.org)

Technically, as Thomas Perlmann, the secretary of the prize committee, said from Stockholm, the work these three men did has helped us “explain how plants, animals, and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions.” (I think the committee meant “rotation” of the Earth, but the quote above is verbatim.)

In other words, we sleep at night and don’t sleep when the sun’s in the sky where we live. The cells in our body also experience changes in that they produce different amounts of important chemicals during the day than they do at night.

They worked with fruit flies, not humans, but they were able to isolate a gene and, in so doing, to “peek inside our biological clock.”

The circadian rhythm of humans has been in the school news of late, as knowing about circadian rhythm has caused the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and every single other professional medical association that has registered the least opinion on the matter, to request that high schools start the school day for teenagers at 8:30 AM or later.

Teenagers’ circadian rhythm would be more closely tied to the school day if it were to start after 8:30. Although these scientists didn’t study humans directly, the work is tightly related to the circadian rhythm of humans. The fruit fly was just a model they could use in a lab. The same circadian rhythm happens in human cells.

“With exquisite precision, our inner clock adapts our physiology to the dramatically different phases of the day,” the Nobel committee noted. “The clock regulates critical functions such as behavior, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature and metabolism.”

Did you all catch that? Sleep.

Now with the recognition of the Nobel committee, I wonder if schools will finally get the message that teenagers need to sleep in the morning. Their circadian rhythm doesn’t shut down their bodies until well after 10 PM, and they need eight hours of sleep to stay healthy and in sync with the sun and the Earth’s rotation.

Here’s the real kicker, though. Drs Hall, Rosbash, and Young started the work for which they won the prize around 1984. That’s right. We’ve known about this stuff for several decades. We’ve been publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals for decades, attesting to the fact that teenagers need to start school later.

Will this be the straw that breaks this camel’s back? Time will tell.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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