Fruit Flies and Sleep Disorders

Florence Cardinal Health Guide
  • A press release from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis states that, by genetically tweaking a part of the brain of fruit flies, the flies are unimpaired, even though sleep deprived.


    "The ultimate goal is to find new ways to help people like the armed forces and first responders stay alert and on top of things when they have to be awake for extended periods of time," says Paul Shaw, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology. "We have drugs now that can keep people awake, but they're addictive and lose their effectiveness with repeated use. This research should help us find methods for maintaining mental acuity that have more specific effects, are less addictive and retain their potency."

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    Wondering what the fruit fly has to do with sleep deprivation in humans? There is, in fact, a great deal of similarity between the sleep pattern of these flies and humans.


    The fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, perches motionless on the windowsill. Don't disturb him. He may be sleeping. And his sleep patterns may reveal clues to human sleep disorders.


    Scientists have discovered that the fruit fly undergoes molecular changes similar to that experienced by mammals. In fact, it shares some of the patterns that govern the sleep and waking cycles in humans. Scientists have already discovered that a fly's sleep is altered by caffeine and antihistamines, and that sleep deprivation leads to a desire to make up the lost sleep time.


    Scientists have decoded the insect's entire DNA map, and are hoping that this research will aid in finding cures for many human afflictions, including the many sleep disorders that plague the human race.

    Although the fruit fly seems small and insignificant in the scheme of things, seventy percent of the fruit fly's genes are also present in humans.


    This is not a new study. Scientists have been looking closely at the Drosophila for a century. In the genetic map of the fruit fly, they have discovered keys to factors that control physical development, heredity and aging. The fruit fly, although tiny, is the most complex organism to have its genetic code deciphered. The only other animal to be decoded is the worm.


    Genetic research is advancing rapidly. Using powerful supercomputers, scientists continue their research into the genetic structure of the fruit fly, and how it may relate to various human disorders and illnesses. One factor that has already been studied is the effect of alcohol on fruit flies. Like humans, fruit flies become drunk, pass out, and eventually exhibit withdrawal symptoms.


    Meth (Methamphetamine) also has an effect on fruit flies similar to the effect it has on humans. Methamphetamine is a central nervous system stimulant that's naturally produced within nerve cells that promote communication.


    Methamphetamine is also produced artificially and illegally and is sometimes used by long-distance truck drivers and people working the night shift. It's often abused, addictive and dangerous.


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    Recent studies reveal it has a similar effect on fruit flies, namely frenetic brain activity and sleepless nights. The drug works on the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical produced by the adrenal glands. It controls the pleasure centers of the brain.


    Research continues at the Berkeley Drosophila Genome Project at the University of California in Berkeley. "The fruit fly genome will be an enormously useful tool........with important applications to human health," said director of the National Institute of Health,4 Dr. Harold Varmus. Perhaps in this tiny insignificant creature, scientists will discover clues to the treatment of disorders like narcolepsy, insomnia and sleep apnea. This sequencing of the fruit fly genome is a big step in finding out how the human genetic code operates

Published On: August 05, 2008