Neurons that Control Brain's Body Clock Identified

The same neurons that produce dopamine have also been identified as also controlling the circadian centre of the brain, or the “body clock”.

The relevance of this lies in the purpose of the neurons, whose function is to regulate eating cycles, metabolism and waking/sleeping cycles. The new discovery suggests a link between these neurons and the body’s ability to adapt to abnormal cycles like jet lag or night shift work.

Researchers at the University of Virginia suggest that modern-day society places abnormal stress on the human body - think of shifting time schedules, unsociable working hours. As a consequence of this, research suggests imbalances such as these can lead to health problems.   

Health problems as a repercussion of abnormal lifestyles can result in problems like sleep disorders and abnormal circadian rhythms that affect the brain and worsen pathological conditions such as: Parkinson's disease, depression, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and drug addiction.

The research was conducted at Ali Deniz Güler’s (Professor of Biology and Neuroscience at The University of Virginia) laboratory and lead by Ph.D. candidate Ryan Grippo.

The researchers found that when shifting light schedules of two mice - one normal, the other with dopamine signaling disrupted - the disrupted mouse took longer to readjust to the six-hour time-shift. This indicates that there was feedback between the dopamine neurons and the circadian centre.  

Speaking after the research, Güler said:

"This discovery, which identifies a direct dopamine neuron connection to the circadian center, is possibly the first step toward the development of unique drugs, targeting specific neurons, to combat the unpleasant symptoms of jet-lag and shiftwork, as well as several dangerous pathologies,"

"Scientists have been working for decades to help the body's circadian system readily re-synchronize to variable work and eating schedules and flights across multiple time zones," Güler said. "Finding this connection between dopamine-producing neurons and the circadian center allows us to target these neurons with therapies that could potentially provide relief of symptoms for travelers and shift workers particularly, and possibly people with insomnia."

"New understanding of dopamine-producing neurons and the connection to the body's biorhythms may go a long way toward treatments to alleviate the harmful effects of these serious pathologies," Güler said.

Next year’s European Neuro Convention will provide expert-led seminars on state-of-the-art research projects. To see more groundbreaking research such as Güler and Grippo’s, register for your free tickets to attend the European Neuro Convention at ExCeL, London on the 6th & 7th June 2018 here.

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