No amount of pampering, pillow-fluffing, or photon-showering on airplanes has yet saved corporate jet-setters and global adventurists from the pain of jet lag. But new research published in eLife
has sniffed out a potentially potent solution: a drug that would tamper
with the master sleep cycle gene to help haggard fliers quickly adjust
to time differences.
Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have
identified a gene called Lhx1, which manages the area of our brain that
acts like a master clock; it regulates our cyclic circadian rhythms and
controls brain receptors that respond to light, keeping us feeling
generally on schedule each day. Normally, the brain cells controlled by
Lhx1 act in synchrony, which makes them somewhat resistant to changes in
light. That inflexibility is why a sudden change in the day-night
schedule can lead to jet lag.
Researchers found that light-dark cycle cells were less in sync for
animals with reduced levels of Lhx1, which led to testing Lhx1’s role in
jet lag for mice. (The mice didn’t travel anywhere; the researchers
just created an eight-hour shift in the animals’ day-night cycle.) They
observed that the mice with less Lhx1 adjusted sooner; their neurons
were less in sync, which allowed a faster shift to the new schedule.
Finding a drug that cuts back on Lhx1 or a hormone it regulates to
treat jet lag could be a big win for drug makers, which have been homing
in on treatments for all manner of sleep disorders. While some studies suggest that problems with circadian rhythms can lead to obesity, mental illness and other illnesses, some doctors aren’t comfortable with drugs to treat jet lag and “shift-work disorders.” Previous attempts at stay-awake pills weren’t proven more effective than, say, caffeine. And yet they were possibly more addictive and potentially fatal.
This story originally appeared on Quartz, a Skift content partner.