Disabling a gene that helps keep track of time makes brain cells more likely to die spontaneously. Scientists think the connection may help explain why neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease are often associated with disrupted sleep.
“Normally in the hours leading up to midday, the brain increases its production of certain antioxidant enzymes, which help clean up free radicals,” says first author Erik Musiek, assistant professor of neurology at Washington University School of Medicine. “When clock genes are disabled, though, this surge no longer occurs, and the free radicals may linger in the brain and cause more damage.”
Musiek conducted the research in the labs of Garret FitzGerald, chairman of pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania, and of David Holtzman, professor and head of the Department of Neurology at Washington University School of Medicine, who are co-senior authors. The study appears in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.
Musiek studied mice lacking a master clock gene called Bmal1. Without this gene, activities that normally occur at particular times of day are disrupted.
“For example, mice normally are active at night and asleep during the day, but when Bmal1 is missing, they sleep equally in the day and in the night, with no circadian rhythm,” Musiek says. “They get the same amount of sleep, but it’s spread over the whole day. Rhythms in the way genes are expressed are lost.”
FitzGerald uses mice lacking Bmal1 to study whether clock cells have links to diabetes and heart disease. He has shown that clock genes influence blood pressure, blood sugar, and lipid levels.
Several years ago, Musiek, who at the time was a neurology resident at the University of Pennsylvania, and FitzGerald decided to investigate how knocking out Bmal1 affects the brain. Holtzman, who has published pioneering work on sleep and Alzheimer’s disease, encouraged Musiek to continue and expand these studies when he came to Washington University as a postdoctoral fellow.
In the new study, Musiek found that as the mice aged, many of their brain cells became damaged and did not function normally. The patterns of damage were similar to those seen in Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.
“Brain cell injury in these mice far exceeded that normally seen in aging mice,” Musiek says. “Many of the injuries appear to be caused by free radicals, which are byproducts of metabolism. If free radicals come into contact with brain cells or other tissue, they can cause damaging chemical reactions.”
This led Musiek to examine the production of key antioxidant enzymes, which usually neutralize and help clear free radicals from the brain, thereby limiting damage. He found levels of several antioxidant proteins peak in the middle of the day in healthy mice. However, this surge is absent in mice lacking Bmal1. Without the surge, free radicals may remain in the brain longer, contributing to the damage Musiek observed.
“We’re trying to identify more specifics about how problems in clock genes contribute to neurodegeneration, both with and without influencing sleep,” Musiek says. “That’s a challenging distinction to make, but it needs to be made because clock genes appear to control many other functions in the brain in addition to sleeping and waking.”
The National Institutes of Health, an Ellison Medical Foundation Senior Scholar Award, the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, and an AAN Clinical Research Training Fellowship funded the research.