Our goal is to have a better picture of how our body (our brain) regulates our sleep-related behaviors. We use various scientific approaches to help us reach this goal. Since we are interested in knowing the regulatory mechanisms for humans, we begin our research using human genetics. Therefore, the foundation of our research is based on people who have interesting sleep behavioral traits and are willing to participate in our research. When these people participate, they often donate a small quantity of their blood or saliva, and from that we can isolate their DNA. These DNA samples will be used to look for changes in their genetic codes that are directly linked to the special sleep behavioral traits. Finding each change is analogous to finding the tiny crack in a closed wall that gives us an opportunity to dig a tunnel, in order to move towards the eventual place where we can see all the connecting tunnels and all the points so that the whole puzzle is put together in front of our eyes. Naturally, to reach that magical place, the more cracks we can find around the whole wall, the better chance we have to get there. Since most people who show interesting sleep behavioral traits usually don’t share the same changes in their genetic codes, every new change that we find will provide a new crack for us to start digging a new tunnel. That is the reason why we need many people to participate in our studies so we can have more chances to find cracks and start digging.
Finding each crack is just the tip of an iceberg, and it usually takes more than 10 years from someone volunteering to participate till the point where we have enough data to tell the first story for sending to a scientific magazine. The amount of money, resource, and effort is beyond the imagination of most people, including most scientists.
There are many tools that we use to dig the tunnels. For example, we can put the changes that we find in humans into model organisms such as mice or fruit flies to see whether we would observe similar sleep behavioral traits in these model organisms. One major challenge in the type of research we do is to replicate the symptom or trait in model organisms. Fortunately, we have been able to find similar behaviors in these model organisms as in humans for most of the DNA changes that we have found so far. We also do experiments in test tubes or cultured cells to analyze the functions of the altered protein product derived from the changed DNA. The study of normal protein can teach us what kind of biological functions this protein is involved in within our cells and body. But, the study of altered protein functions can tell us what has gone weary from the normal pathway that causes the change in behavior.
As we learn more and more and understand better on how different parts of the puzzle work together to regulate our sleep, we can then begin to think about the possible ways to tweak the system in the future.
Sleep impacts our health in many different ways. It affects our immune function, cognitive capacity, mood status, to name a few. We also use the knowledge that we learn about sleep to help us understand how sleep can affect other normal functions of our body.