by SUKANYA CHARUCHANDRA
The protein Bmal1, which helps regulate the body’s internal clock, is found in especially high levels in the brain and in skeletal muscles. Mice completely deficient in Bmal1 were known to suffer from sleep impairments, but the specifics at play weren’t clear. At the University of California, Los Angeles, Ketema Paul and colleagues looked to these mice for clues about the role Bmal1 plays in sleep regulation.
When Paul’s team restored levels of the Bmal1 protein in the mice’s brains, their ability to rebound from a night of bad sleep remained poor. However, turning on production in skeletal muscles alone enabled mice to sleep longer and more deeply to recover after sleep loss.
For decades, scientists have thought sleep was controlled purely by the brain. But the new study indicates the ability to catch up on one’s sleep after a bout of sleeplessness is locked away in skeletal muscles, not the brain—at least for mice. “I think it’s a real paradigm shift for how we think about sleep,” says John Hogenesch, a chronobiologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center who discovered the Bmal1 gene but was not involved in this study.
Paul’s group also found that having too much of the Bmal1 protein in their muscles not only made mice vigilant but also invulnerable to the effects of sleep loss, so that they remained alert even when sleep-deprived and slept fewer hours to regain lost sleep. “To me, that presents a potential target where you could treat sleep disorders,” says Paul, noting that an inability to recover from sleep loss can make us more susceptible to diseases.
J.C. Ehlen et al., “Bmal1 function in skeletal muscle regulates sleep,” eLife, 6:e26557, 2017.