Almost all of us rely on clocks and watches to know what to do and when – from the morning alarm clock telling us to get up and start our day to the clock displays on our computers telling us our day at work is done. There is another, more primitive clock at work however – our body clock.
Embedded within our very genes are instructions for this biological clock that measures the passage of 24 hours (approx). It is these clocks that determine our sleep patterns, mood, alertness and even blood pressure.
On a normal day we experience a 24-hour pattern of light and dark which governs our biological clock to affect body temperature, cognitive performance and much more depending on whether it is time to go to sleep, or time to wake up and start our day.
The ‘master’ biological clock as it were is located at the base of the brain within the anterior hypothalamus where a cluster of neurons known as suprachiasmatic nuclei (or SCN) lie. It is this cluster that coordinates the activity of billions of other cellular clocks within the body, all working together to keep our clock in sync.
When this system is disrupted, it is known as ‘sleep and circadian rhythm disruption’, or SCRD. When this occurs multiple illnesses are promoted, including reduced immunity and abnormal metabolism. It has been previously discovered that shift workers with SCRD tend to have higher rates of heart disease, infection, type two diabetes and even cancer.
Now it has been revealed that SCRD is linked to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disease and depression. Previously, it was thought that this link was down to medication or social isolation, but now studies show the same genes that are linked to mental illness are involved in the generation of circadian rhythms and sleep.
This new insight represents a fantastic opportunity for further research that could potentially transform the quality of life of millions.
To find out more about mental health, please see our Mental Health page.
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