Researchers Identify Nemuri Gene that Links Infection with [the Need For] Deep Sleep

Health science tells us that the average human should try to get around 8 hours of sleep per night, on average.  This is not always true for every person—and is not an easy goal to accomplish sometimes—this average comes as the result of analyzing our physical and emotional needs.  But while our data suggests that we should spend as much one-third of our lives asleep, we don’t actually have a lot of data on sleep mechanisms as a whole. 

That is, until now:  a recent study of 12,000 lines of fruit flies, researchers now say they have found one gene—nemuri—that increases our need for sleep.  Basically, this University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine research team have found that this nemuri gene actually fights germs with what appears to be an inherent antimicrobial property, a property that is secreted by cells in the brain to encourage and regulate long and deep sleep after infection. 

Lead study author Amita Sehgal notes, “While it’s a common notion that sleep and healing are tightly related, our study directly links sleep to the immune system and provides a potential explanation for how sleep increases during sickness.”

Effectively, this nemuri gene helped flies to sleep with fewer interruptions after the body finds an infection.  Perhaps more importantly, though, the study found that sleep deprivation causes the body to stimulate nemuri expression in a way almost similar to that of infection, in a small set of neurons resting near a sleep-promoting structure within the brain.  Increased nemuri expression, then, increased sleep in those who were infected with a bacteria and also led to better survival rates when compared to flies who were not infected. In addition, it appears that nemuri proteins may also kill microbes.

Hirofumi Toda is a postdoctoral fellow at Amita Sehgal’s laboratory.  Also a lead author on the study, Today notes, “The nemuri protein is a genuine driver of keeping sleep on track under conditions of high sleep need like when we’re sick.”

The results of this study have been published in the journal Science.