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Waking up tired. Posed by model. SCIENTISTS have discovered a ‘genetic switch’ that governs sleep patterns – which could lead to treatments for insomniacs. Researchers believe they have found a key chemical that turns on the internal body clock – and tells us when to wake, eat and sleep.They say the findings could lead to treatments for jet lag and other serious sleep disorders, and may also allow drugs to be developed so night shift workers can adjust to their peculiar hours. Body clocks – or circadian rhythms – control when we feel hungry or tired, the body’s temperature and the ebb and flow of hormones. The internal cycle is usually more than 24 hours and so has to be reset every day – or people would go to bed later and later. Normally sunlight or breakfast help to kick-start the clock.Because about 15 per cent of genes are regulated by circadian rhythms, if the clock is disrupted it can cause serious health problems, including depression, heart disease, insomnia and brain disorders. Scientists from the University of California in Irvine have now identified a crucial chemical involved in controlling the clock, the journal Nature reports. Professor Paolo Sassone-Corsi, an expert in pharmacology, found that changes in a single amino acid – one of the building blocks of the body – switches on the set of genes that control the circadian rhythm. If the amino acid fails to behave properly, the entire body clock is thrown out, disrupting sleep patterns and making people feel exhausted. His team is now testing different drugs that could target the chemical switch. Professor Sassone-Corsi said: ‘Because the triggering action is so specific, it appears to be a perfect target for compounds that could regulate this activity. ‘It is always amazing to see molecular control is so precise in biology.’ The research is still at the earliest stage and it will be years before any drugs can be developed. Doctors are increasingly concerned about the impact of disrupted sleep on healt
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