New York University Skip to Content Skip to Search Skip to Navigation Skip to Sub Navigation

Researchers Uncover New Ways That Sleep-Wake Patterns Function Like Clockwork

September 28, 2012

Researchers at NYU and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have discovered new ways neurons work together to ease the transition between sleep and wakefulness.

Their findings, which appeared in the journal Neuron, provide additional insights into sleep-wake patterns and offer methods to explore what may disrupt them. Their study explored the biological, or circadian, clocks of Drosophila fruit flies, which are commonly used for research in this area. This is because it is relatively easy to find mutants with malfunctioning biological clocks and then to identify the genes underlying the altered behavior. Such studies in fruit flies have allowed the identification of similar “clock genes” in mammals, which function in largely the same manner as they do in a fly’s clock.

In the Neuron study, the researchers moved up a level to study how pacemaker clock neurons—which express clock genes—interact with each other. Specifically, they looked at the relationship between master pacemaker neurons, which control the overall pace of the circadian system, and non-master pacemaker neurons, whose role in circadian rhythms has been less clear.

To do so, they examined flies with normally functioning master and non-master clock neurons and compared them with mutant flies in which the signaling of these neurons was either increased or decreased. These comparisons allowed the researchers to isolate the individual roles of these neurons and, in particular, to understand how master and non-master pacemaker neurons work together to control circadian rhythms.

Their results revealed a previously unknown role for non-master pacemaker neurons. Specifically, these neurons employ a neurotransmitter, glutamate, which suppresses signaling of the master pacemaker neurons during the evening. Artificially increasing this suppression by the non-master clock neurons in the morning made it much harder for flies to wake up. So in normal flies, these non-master pacemaker neurons have to stand aside at dawn, allowing the master pacemaker neurons to fire to wake up the fly. The authors concluded that the balance between signaling of these two groups of clock neurons helps to set the precise time of the transition between sleep and wakefulness.

“Our work shifts the emphasis away from clock genes and starts to address how clock neurons function in a neural network to regulate behavior,” explains Justin Blau, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Biology and one of the study’s co-authors. “And it shows the importance of studying individual groups of clock neurons, since different subsets can have opposite effects on animal behavior.”

The study’s other co-authors were Ben Collins, a postdoctoral fellow in NYU’s
Department of Biology; Elizabeth Kane, an undergraduate in NYU’s College of Arts and Science at the time of the study and now a doctoral student at Harvard University’s Center for Brain Science; and David Reeves, a postdoctoral researcher, and professor Myles Akabas, both at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Type: Article

Press Contact: James Devitt | (212) 998-6808

Researchers Uncover New Ways That  Sleep-Wake Patterns Function Like Clockwork

Search News



NYU In the News

NYU Offers Financial Aid to Undocumented Students

The Wall Street Journal reported that NYU will begin offering scholarship aid to undocumented students for the school year beginning next September.

NYU Adopts Lean LaunchPad Program to Teach Entrepreneurship

Startup guru Steve Blank, in a Huffington Post blog, described how NYU adopted the Lean LaunchPad model to teach entrepreneurship to students and faculty at NYU.

Biology Professor Jane Carlton Examines Wastewater for the City’s Microbiome

The New York Times’ Science Times column “Well” profiled Biology Professor Jane Carlton and her research project to sequence microbiome of New York City by examining wastewater samples.

Steinhardt Professors Use a Play as Therapy

The New York Times wrote about a play written by Steinhardt Music Professor Robert Landy about the relationship between Adjunct Professor Cecilia Dintino, a clinical psychologist in the Drama Therapy Program, and a patient, former Broadway actress Jill Powell.

NYU Public Health Experts Urge Strengthening Local Health Systems to Combat Ebola

Dean Cheryl Healton of the Global Institute of Public Health and Public Health Professor Christopher Dickey wrote an op-ed in the Huffington Post saying international health agencies need to strengthen their presence in countries at the local level to prevent future ebola outbreaks.

NYU Footer