Long-term sleep deprivation is harmful to health and increases the risk of psychiatric and somatic diseases such as depression and cardiovascular diseases. However, little is known about the molecular biological mechanisms that are set in motion by sleep deprivation and that underlie the associated negative effects on health.
In a recently published study, the University of Helsinki, the Finnish Institute for Health and Social Welfare, the Finnish Institute for Occupational Medicine and the airline Finnair examined dynamic changes in DNA methylation in shift workers. DNA methylation is an epigenetic regulation that modifies gene function and regulates gene activity without changing the base sequence in the DNA.
Short-term genetic changes due to DNA methylation are not known. While methylation is linked to our environment, more research is needed into how the environment affects epigenetic regulation and gene function.
The recently published study provides researchers with new information on both DNA methylation and the biological processes that affect a shift work-related sleep disorder (Shift Work Disorder, or SWD).
The study was published in the renowned Scientific Reports series.
Changes in DNA methylation can mediate infections caused by lack of sleep
A total of 32 shift workers took part in the study, 21 of whom suffered from a shift work disorder and 11 were in the control group. Dynamic changes in DNA methylation were investigated by genome-wide analysis during work and after a vacation period.
Changes in DNA methylation that influenced gene function were found in study participants with a sleep disorder caused by shift work. The results showed that rest and relaxation during vacation time also restored DNA methylation if changes were observed during work hours.
The study proved the dynamic nature of DNA methylation, highlighted in particular in the activity of NMDA glutamate receptors. The strongest evidence was provided by the GRIN2C receptor: the degree of methylation of a certain CpG base pair in the regulatory region was lower during working hours in subjects with shift work disorders. However, this change was reversed after the holiday season.
“From the results we can deduce that changes in DNA methylation of white blood cells are associated with a shift work disorder. These changes, such as the low methylation observed during work hours, are likely linked to sleep deprivation and associated inflammatory sequelae. which DNA changes can mediate, “says PhD student Alexandra Lahtinen, MSc, from the University of Helsinki.
Sufficient rest and relaxation are important for everyone, but especially important for people with a background of long-term sleep deprivation, for example due to lifestyle habits or irregular working conditions. On the positive side, however, the subjects experienced at least some of the changes observed in the study related to shift work disorders, “says Professor Tiina Paunio of the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Institute of Health and Social Welfare, who led the study.
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