What’s Keeping You Up at Night? Your Genes, Possibly.
A newly-discovered gene mutation may actually be desirable for some medical students. In April, scientists at Rockefeller University announced that they discovered a variant of the gene CRY1 that slows down the circadian clock, which is responsible for your sleep cycle. In Cell, the authors of the study suggest that the mutation “affects sleep behavior in a sizeable portion of the human population,” specifically causing a longer sleep cycle. In other words, being a night owl may be in your DNA.
This gene mutation is a hereditary form of Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder (DSPD), more commonly known as insomnia. Those affected, start to feel tired at hours the researchers describe as “misaligned with the societal norm.” That is to say, those with longer sleep cycles would rather sleep in when it’s time to rise and shine for early morning lectures or lab sessions.
But if you’re a true night owl, you know that for all the reported drawbacks of staying up late on a regular basis—not being able to function in a 9-5 society, poor nutritional habits, higher incidence of substance abuse and depression—you’re also awake at time when it can be much easier to focus. The noise and chaos of traditional working hours are conspicuously absent. The library may be less busy. Your social networks may be quieter. For many future MDs, this may be a good thing.
Researchers at Germany’s RWTH Aachen University found differences in white matter among the brains of three “chronotypes”: early chronotypes (ECs), who get up early and find it difficult to stay awake past their usual bedtimes, late chronotypes (LCs), who go to bed late and have difficulty waking up, and intermediate chronotypes (ICs), who fall somewhere in between. A night owl living in an early-bird world can still make a conscious decision to adjust his or her sleep patterns, but late-night tendencies may be built in.