Early bird? Night Owl? Beth Israel says there’s a gene for that

By Julie Donnelly, Boston Business Journals

Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center say they have found the gene that determines who will be an early bird and who will be a night owl. Much creepier, researchers say this gene can also predict what time of day a person is most likely to die.

In the past, researchers have found rare gene mutations responsible, say, for whole families that wake up at 3 in the morning and go to sleep at 8 p.m. But now the Beth Israel researchers say they have found a common gene variant that controls the so-called circadian clock, determining when a person is most alert.

“The internal ‘biological clock’ regulates many aspects of human biology and behavior, such as preferred sleep times, times of peak cognitive performance, and the timing of many physiological processes,” lead author Dr. Andrew Lim said in a statement. “It also influences the timing of acute medical events like stroke and heart attack.”

The study appears in the November 2012 issue of the Annals of Neurology.

The work came about when Lim and other neurologists were studying why older people have trouble sleeping. The original goal of the research was to identify precursors to the development of Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease. The research subjects underwent sleep-wake analyses and agreed to donate their brains after they died. They also had their DNA genotyped, and it was this information that Lim’s team, in cooperation with a team from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, used to find a genetic difference between early birds and night owls.

Those with one gene variation, A-A, woke up about an hour earlier than those with another variation, G-G. Those with one A and one G, woke up in the middle.

Researchers found that the G-G group, which woke latest in the morning, also died latest in the day. While the majority of deaths occur before 11 a.m., those in the G-G group died before 6 p.m.

Lim and his colleagues say this information could guide treatment, such as taking heart medications at particular times depending on which group patients belong to.

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