This site is intended for health professionals only

Clock gene sleep research has implications for workforce

A genetic difference in a body clock gene makes some people particularly sensitive to the effects of sleep deprivation, according to findings published in this week's issue of Current Biology.

Researchers at the University of Surrey's Sleep Research Centre compared how individuals with a long and short variant of the PERIOD3 gene coped with being kept awake for two days and the intervening night. Dr Antoine Viola, lead author on the research paper, says: "The differences between the individuals were striking. Some participants were experiencing no problems staying awake and others were really struggling."

The results were most pronounced during the early hours of the morning (between 4 and 8am). Individuals with the longer variant of the gene performed very poorly on tests for attention and working memory. Cognitive psychologist, Professor John Groeger, says: "The early morning performance problems of those with the long variant have important implications for safety and efficiency at work." Research team leader, Professor Derk-Jan Dijk, explains: "This is exactly the time of night when shift workers struggle to stay awake and many sleepiness-related accidents occur."

This experiment was conducted in the laboratory and whether the PERIOD3 gene also predicts individual differences in the tolerance to night shift work remains to be demonstrated." Another member of the team, Dr Malcolm von Schantz, adds: "Approximately 10% of the UK population carries just the longer form of this gene. The possibility that they may be genetically predisposed to perform poorly late at night is a cause for concern."

The research was supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), and conducted at the University of Surrey's Clinical Research Centre.