Paul Shaw, Ph.D., an associate professor at Washington University’s School of Medicine, is using unique research techniques to identify markers of sleep loss in humans. These markers might be able to indicate sleep loss for doctors diagnosing health and sleep problems, as well as offering potential explanations for certain human immune and inflammatory responses. The unusual part? Shaw is using fruit flies to inform his research on human sleep.
I’m all for innovative methods, but this one made me do a bit of a double-take. Turns out Shaw has been using fruit flies for years to model genetic factors that may affect human sleep. That’s not the unusual part; many scientists use lower-order test subjects like flies, mice, or rats before (or instead of) implementing human trials.
Shaw, though, took what he learned from humans back to his flies—and gained new insight in the process. Their studies have identified a previously untested human gene that is more active after sleep deprivation. He published the results in the April 24 edition of PLOS One, and is calling this interspecies method “cross-translational research.” Science Daily reported on the method and the findings.
Drowsiness Can Be Dangerous
Shaw’s research team wants to use the information from their current set of studies to build a panel of tests for sleep loss. Those tests may one day assess risk of falling asleep in dangerous circumstance—such as behind the wheel of a vehicle.
That practical application is what led me to the study. This kind of information could one day allow police officers to perform an objective test for drowsiness, just like the current tests for blood alcohol levels. Real-world applications like these could help us put measurable numbers on the dangers of sleep deprivation, helping us save innocent lives and address the widespread sleep deprivation that seems inherent in our culture.
Next time, I’ll talk a bit more about the study itself and how Dr. Shaw used his research findings between flies and humans in innovative ways. For now, a question: How do you feel about testing for sleep deprivation if a sleepy driver has caused an accident?