Sudden changes to our schedules, like the end of daylight saving time this Sunday or flying across time zones, often leave us feeling off kilter because they disrupt our bodies’ circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle. When these “biological clocks” are disrupted, our bodies eventually readjust. However, some people have conditions that cause their circadian rhythms to be permanently out of sync with their surroundings.
Michael W. Young, Ph.D., the Richard and Jeanne Fisher Professor at The Rockefeller University in New York, New York, is studying the genetics underlying one of these conditions: delayed sleep phase disorder, in which a person’s circadian rhythms don’t properly align with day and night. This can make it very difficult to adhere to a “normal” schedule and be alert during typical school or work hours. In a video interview, Dr. Young describes how he’s investigating an inherited form of delayed sleep phase disorder that may affect nearly 1 percent of people worldwide. He hopes that using genetic data to better understand the causes of this and other sleep disorders will aid in the development of new treatments.
Dr. Young is one of three researchers—all NIGMS grantees—who were awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2017 for circadian rhythms research. His current work is supported in part by NIGMS grant R35GM136237.