Hair follicle tests for sleep disorders

I love this kind of stuff…


Assessing the human circadian clock using hair follicle cells

Sleep Secrets Revealed in Human Hair

Tracking your internal clock may be as easy as plucking a few strands of hair, according to a new study.

The research, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that hair follicles hold a record of the gene activity that influences when we wake and when we sleep. The results could be used to diagnose and study sleep disorders and conditions like jet lag.

Whether you’re a night owl or a morning lark, your sleep-wake cycle is controlled in large part by genes called clock genes. These genes vary their activity throughout the day, setting the internal clock that drives our circadian rhythms.

The first human clock gene was discovered almost 10 years ago, but isolating the genes efficiently enough to study sleep-wake cycles in real time has proved difficult. When the genes are active, they transcribe their DNA into RNA, the first step in producing various proteins that essentially carry out a gene’s instructions and, in this case, influence circadian rhythms. The RNA can be found in cells all over the body, from white blood cells to the lining of the mouth, but techniques for extracting it from these cells proved unreliable.

So Makoto Akashi, a researcher at Yamaguchi University in Japan, and colleagues turned to hair. At the base of every strand of hair is a follicle of living cells, which clings to the hair when plucked. By tweezing an average of 10 head hairs per person (five for thick-haired folks and as many as 20 for those with thin locks), the researchers were able to isolate and track the activity of three separate clock genes. Beard hair was even more reliable: Just three strands produced accurate results.

By plucking hair from four people going about their daily routines, the researchers found that peak gene expression (when the most transcribed RNA was present) matched peak wakefulness. When people shifted their schedules by four hours over three weeks, however, peak gene activity shifted by just
2.1 hours, suggesting a jet lag-like reaction. In other words, even though people forced themselves into a new sleep-wake schedule, their body clocks had yet to adjust.

The researchers then followed six shift workers whose schedules alternated between 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. one week and 3 p.m. to midnight the next. They found that even though the workers’ sleep-wake cycles shifted by seven hours between weeks, their gene expression shifted by just 2 hours. That could mean that shift workers live in a permanent state of jet lag, possibly putting them at risk for heart attack and stroke, the researchers wrote.

For now, the hair-plucking technique is best suited for research purposes, but with technical improvements, the researchers say, it could be used in hospitals and doctors’ offices to diagnose and treat patients with skewed circadian rhythms.

Copyright C 2010 All rights reserved.

Noninvasive method for assessing the human circadian clock using hair follicle cells
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

A thorough understanding of the circadian clock requires qualitative evaluation of circadian clock gene expression. Thus far, no simple and effective method for detecting human clock gene expression has become available. This limitation has greatly hampered our understanding of human circadian rhythm. Here we report a convenient, reliable, and less invasive method for detecting human clock gene expression using biopsy samples of hair follicle cells from the head or chin. We show that the circadian phase of clock gene expression in hair follicle cells accurately reflects that of individual behavioral rhythms, demonstrating that this strategy is appropriate for evaluating the human peripheral circadian clock.
Furthermore, using this method, we indicate that rotating shift workers suffer from a serious time lag between circadian gene expression rhythms and lifestyle. Qualitative evaluation of clock gene expression in hair follicle cells, therefore, may be an effective approach for studying the human circadian clock in the clinical setting.
circadian rhythm clock gene shift work jet lag chronotherapy

This article contains supporting information online at

Freely available online through the PNAS open access option.
Copyright C2010 by the National Academy of Sciences

1 Comment

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One Response to Hair follicle tests for sleep disorders

  1. The part about shift work doesn’t surprise me, it’s just common sense. I’ve said for years that I think it should be banned. It’s not healthy for people and it’s dangerous for anybody who interacts with them in any way. I’ve known people who did shifts for years and even after they stop, sometimes years later they’re still messed up.

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