Biologist Michael W. Young, PhD, who, together with fellow researchers Jeffrey C. Hall and Michael Rosbash, was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, was the keynote speaker today at NYU Winthrop Hospital’s Neonatology 25th Anniversary Jubilee Conference. Dr. Young’s research, over the course of 40 years, led to the discovery of genes that help regulate what is called the biological clock. Those discoveries help to explain how other multicellular organisms—plants, animals and humans—adapt their biological rhythms to be synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions. In his presentation today, Dr. Young made some stunning revelations about the human biological clock that have profound implications for understanding human sleep disorders, the mechanisms of jet lag, the challenges of working on the night shift, and depressive disorders.
“We don’t have clocks only in our brains,” said the Nobel Laureate, Dr. Michael W. Young. “These clocks are in almost every tissue in our body. We have these clocks in our liver, lungs… even in our skin.”
To illustrate this point, Dr. Young pointed to jet lag, which involves a “desynchronization” of the biological clock, also known as the circadian clock. A desynchronization of that clock in humans is exacerbated because, “Tissues move to new time zones at different rates.” So while taking an Ambien® on a plane may help ease jet lag by helping put a traveler’s brain to sleep, it does not address other tissues and organs in the body that may also suffer the fatigue of desynchronization.
Dr. Young, a professor at New York City-based Rockefeller University, together with his fellow Nobel Laureates, isolated several genes that control the normal daily biological clock of the fruit fly and showed how these genes cause certain proteins to accumulate during the night and then degrade during the day when exposed to sunlight. Interrupting that light–dark cycle causes desynchronization, such as when a person works on a night shift.
Dr. Young also pointed to delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD), or “night-owl disorder,” which is when a person functions best late at night but then may be lethargic and drowsy during the day. DSPD is among the most common sleep disorders in the U.S., with approximately five percent of the population affected. With this syndrome, the circadian rhythm is slowed from what is considered normal. Interestingly, again pointing out how the issue goes beyond the brain, Dr. Young noted evidence among those affected with DPSD, “Skin biopsies showed slow-running circadian clocks.”
The most important finding regarding the night-owl disorder, however, was a gene mutation that was identified as a predictor of DSPD. The mutation was found in one percent of all of the world’s population, with the mutation most prevalent in Europeans of non-Finnish descent. Of those with that European heritage, “One in 75 individuals carries the mutation,” said Dr. Young, who also noted that the mutation is found in multiple members of each family. “We can expect all the tissues should be affected,” added Dr. Young. Due to the breakthroughs with his discoveries, however, he adds the caveat: “We can test whether the impact of a particular sleep mutation extends to other medical problems, and we can rule out non-environmental causes.”
“As a research and teaching hospital, we are so inspired by Dr. Michael Young’s journey of discovery, which has laid a foundation for additional breakthroughs in science and medicine,” said Nazeeh N. Hanna, MD, chief of the Division of Neonatology at NYU Winthrop Hospital and the conference leader hosting Dr. Young. “As Dr. Young has shown, research may take decades, but the rewards are such that it may improve our health and wellbeing and that of future generations.”
“This type of research often leads to discoveries that no one imagined, so it’s vitally important that the path of research be open to all possibilities,” said Dr. Young. “We pursue clues in the most obscure of areas and follow them where they lead. The same is most assuredly true for research in neonatology.”
More than 250 physicians, neonatal intensive care unit staff, and researchers attended the conference, held in Garden City on Long Island. The conference also featured distinguished neonatology experts from around the country. Following his presentation, Dr. Young served as presenter for NYU Winthrop awards recognizing the best innovative research in neonatology, and he answered questions, such as “At what age do infants develop circadian rhythms?” Dr. Young estimated that to be at four to six months of age, but added that it’s not clear if there are rhythms that can’t yet be detected because they are still emerging in the cells of the developing infant. He also addressed the impact of feeding regimens on the circadian clock, among other issues.