Worldwide, 770 million people suffer from chronic insomnia. However, they could soon find some relief. New research has identified types of brain cells and brain areas that are involved in insomnia. The findings are a major step towards understanding the biological mechanisms that cause the sleep disorder.
Using data from the UK Bioband and DNA testing company 23andMe, researchers gathered genetic and sleep information on more than 1.3 million people – the largest genetic dataset ever. They found 956 high risk genes for insomnia. Further analysis revealed that some of these genes play an important role in the functioning of axons, which are long, threadlike parts of nerve cells along which impulses are conducted from the cell bodies to other cells.
Researchers also found very little overlap between the newly identified genes and those known to be involved in other sleep traits, such as being a morning or evening person. Instead, there was a lot of overlap with genes linked to depression and anxiety. These surprising findings suggest that we may be able to one day treat insomnia by targeting portions of the brain that regulate emotions, stress, and tension.
“This study is an immense step forward in understanding the genetic background of insomnia. The findings underline that insomnia is a serious condition, because of the shared genetic risk of psychiatric disorders and metabolic disturbances involved in obesity and diabetes”, states Vladimir Vacic, Senior Scientist in Computational Biology at 23andMe.