Jet lag and its molecular secrets

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

Sagrada Familia
The Sagrada Familia in Spain. Imagine feeling groggy when you gaze upon this beautiful work of architecture? No fun!

Traveling to different continents in the world, or even halfway across the country, is definitely going to shake up your sleep cycle. If you’re a Californian, when it’s midnight and you’re ready to pass out for the night, guess what time it is in Spain? 9am! So, just when you’re ready to collapse into some fluffy pillows at a hotel in Barcelona, it’s already time to get up!

This is because human beings have circadian rhythms – a sort of internal clock that tells our body when to fall asleep depending on whether it’s light or dark outside. As you can imagine, the body gets confused when it feels dead tired, but the morning sun is blasting light into the bedroom. This phenomenon is commonly called “jet lag,” because you’ll certainly be lagging behind the rest of the local people days after getting off that jet!

How can we make life a bit easier for all those yawning travelers out there? Researchers at Oxford University say they’ve got the solution! Since our brain seems to have trouble slamming the “molecular brakes” to reset our body’s clock with light, these devious scientists identified exactly where in our DNA the light-responsive “master clock” is.

Technically, they found this DNA in mice, so don’t go getting all excited about popping pills to kill jet lag anytime soon. However, Professor Russel Foster, one of the researchers, told the BBC, “We reduced levels by 50-60%, which is big enough to get a very, very big effect. What we saw was the mice would actually advance their clock six hours within a day [rather than taking six days for untreated mice]… this provides a molecular basis for jet lag and as a result new targets for potentially developing new drugs.”