The Scientists Whose Research Led to Everything We Know About Sleep Just Won the Nobel Prize in Medicine
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If you think back to five or 10 years ago, not getting enough sleep, staying up all night and working long hours was considered a sign of success. In fact, in some cases, not getting enough sleep was basically a badge of honor. However, the tables have turned.
With more and more studies and new research surfacing, people are finally realizing the importance of sleep. Perhaps in light of that trend, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to a trio of researchers for their discoveries on the internal biological clock, that is, the 24-hour body clock.
American circadian rhythm scientists Jeffrey C. Hall and Michael Rosbash from Brandeis University and Michael W. Young from Rockefeller University were recognized and awarded $1.1 million for their insights in explaining “how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronised with the Earth’s revolutions.” In other words, how the internal body clock, known as the circadian rhythm, in organisms explain why people wake up during the day and sleep at night.
These researchers were also responsible for uncovering sleep’s effects on other bodily functions such as eating, hormones and health. “With exquisite precision, our inner clock adapts our physiology to the dramatically different phases of the day,” members of the Nobel committee noted. As is often discussed today, the committee explains how this imbalance increases risks for disease and poor health: “The clock regulates critical functions such as behavior, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature and metabolism.
Pretty much any new studies that emerge today, such as how sleep deprivation can increase risk for diseases including diabetes, obesity and cancers, or how lack of sleep can result in poor performance, are all rooted back to Hall, Rosbash and Young’s initial research in the 1980s.
Back then, the award-winning scientists began their work by studying the 24-hour cycles of fruit flies. In the fruit flies, the researchers identified a gene, known as the “period” gene, which carries a protein that fluctuates and degrades throughout the day and then restores itself overnight. When there’s a mismatch between an organism’s internal body clock and external environmental factors, their well-being is affected. Later on, the researchers continued their work, discovering why various impacts of the circadian rhythm and most notably, how light impacts a person’s body clock. Think: jet lag.