Fruit flies hold secret to sleep: Medicine's next big thing?

Fruit fly genes are easy to manipulate

ST. LOUIS, Mo. (Ivanhoe Newswire) – We all know how much better we feel after a good night’s sleep, but sleep is also key for staying healthy. If you don’t get enough sleep, there’s evidence that your brain activity changes. Researchers are studying the impact of sleep on insomniac fruit flies to see how they can help humans.

For 59-year old Deb Thum a simple game of dominoes with her mother, Lorie, is easier now than ever before.

For years, Thum struggled with sleep apnea, waking up every few minutes overnight. Sleep deprivation wrecked her focus.

Thum told Ivanhoe, “I just know I had to work harder than anybody else. People would say ‘oh that only took me half an hour.’ It would take me three hours.”

Neurobiologist Paul Shaw, PhD, from Washington University in St. Louis, is studying fruit flies to uncover the secrets of sleep. Of all animals, Shaw says fruit fly genes are easy to manipulate.

“I can take a human gene that’s involved in patterning your hand, I can take that human gene and put it in a fly and I get a wing,” explained Shaw.

Shaw takes flies that are missing the gene responsible for memory and puts them to sleep for two days, either with drugs or by using light to activate brain neurons. When they wake up, the flies behave normally.

“These animals are still broken, the gene is still missing, the brain structure is gone. Somehow sleep has allowed the brain to adapt and do interesting things,” Shaw told Ivanhoe.

Thum’s doctors helped her solve her sleep problems. Most days, she feels like a different person. Her concentration is back.

Thum said she feels, “Unbelievably different. Two-thousand times better.”

Shaw said he is hoping that his sleep research someday augments current drugs for neurological diseases and eventually paves the way for new therapies that slow or reverse diseases of the brain.

Contributors to this news report include: Cyndy McGrath, Supervising and Field Producer; Milvionne Chery, Assistant Producer; Tony D’Astoli, Editor; Brent Sucher, Videographer.