This Must be the Best (and Strangest) Hiding Place in the World

    If you were a biological substance that influenced sleep―specifically excessive sleepiness―where would you hide if you didn’t want curious neuroscientists to find you?

    BMAL1: The Ultimate No-Brainer

    BMAL1, a protein which helps mice recover from sleep deprivation, came up with the ultimate no-brainer. Specifically, BMAL1 did not hide in the brain, which is the very first place investigators have looked for substances related to sleep. After all, scientists have long thought that the brain controlled everything having to do with your catching forty winks.

    Instead, BMAL1 hid in the skeletal muscles of the mouse, where its role was just identified. And to show you what a good hiding place those skeletal muscles were, it took a collaboration of three educational institutions, sponsored by six major funders, to find the protein!

    Why It Matters

    The basic physiology of mice often gives us clues about how to solve human problems. Excessive sleepiness is a difficulty because:

    • shift work, jet lag, and activities requiring long periods of wakefulness, are risk factors for excessive sleepiness
    • these risk factors are becoming more common, so excessive sleepiness is increasing
    • excessive sleepiness has dangerous consequences, such as drowsy driving.

    The astonishing discovery that BMAL1 signals the brain from the muscles means that:

    • as Turkish playwright Mehmet Murat ildan says, “Nobody is exempt from the surprises of life”
    • the brain is no longer the only player in the basic science world of sleep
    • researchers have a new target to investigate in their search for treatments for excessive sleepiness. They now know that mice with a great deal of BMAL1 in their muscles recover from sleep deprivation faster, while removing BMAL1from the muscles retards recovery.

    Perhaps this is the beginning of a new life for BMAL1!

    Additional Information

    Study finding provides new target besides the brain to develop therapies for sleep disorders (press release from UT Southwestern Medical Center)

    Bmal1 function in skeletal muscle regulates sleep (abstract; scholarly article forthcoming)

    Elizabeth Saenger, PhD