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.