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Sleep in your genes?

8 April 2015

Different parts of our brain communicate with one another as we learn new information during the day. Then, while we sleep, our brain files away memories for long-term storage. Evidence suggests that this process, which varies naturally in everyone, may be disrupted in patients with mental health conditions.

To help understand why this might happen, a team of researchers at the University of Bristol, led by Drs Nic Timpson (School of Social and Community Medicine) and Matt Jones (School of Physiology and Pharmacology), looked at how genes influence overnight brain activity in healthy individuals. The team also includes Dr Laura Corbin (Social and Community Medicine), Dr Ullrich Bartsch (Physiology & Pharmacology), Dr Claire Durant (Clinical research and Imaging Centre) and Dr Charlotte Hellmich (an Academic Foundation Doctor at University Hospitals Bristol). 

The team invited participants from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parent and Children (ALSPAC), popularly known as Children of the 90s, to attend a sleep laboratory. There they performed specifically designed memory-based tasks and completed questionnaires before having their brain activity recorded overnight using ‘electroencephalography’ (small electrodes glued to the scalp). This methodology enabled researchers to measure how genetic differences affect memory consolidation during sleep. 

The team’s focus was on naturally occurring variation in a gene called ZNF804A, because previous studies have shown that it affects both brain activity and sleep. By inviting healthy participants with different forms of the gene, the researchers hope to better understand how it influences these characteristics.  This is important because, when combined with a number of other genetic and lifestyle risk factors, certain common variants of the gene have been associated with an increased risk of developing mental health disorders.  However, the vast majority of individuals who carry the identified variant are completely healthy.  Studying variation in healthy individuals in this way can tell researchers a lot and, crucially, may inform the development of new treatments to help the sick. 

Elizabeth Blackwell Institute’s Catalyst Fund helped to build an interdisciplinary team of researchers to work on this project, incorporating geneticists, neuroscientists and clinicians whose paths might not otherwise have crossed. Only by linking all these different levels of analysis can we understand the complexities of an apparently simple process like sleep – and since sleep is central to quality of life for the entire population, detecting and treating even subtle abnormalities could have major impact. 

Based at the University of Bristol, the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), also known as Children of the 90s, is a long-term health-research project that enrolled more than 14,000 pregnant women in 1991 and 1992. It has been following the health and development of the parents and their children in detail ever since and is currently recruiting the children and the siblings of the original children into the study. It receives core funding from the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the University of Bristol. Find out more at

Further information

Understanding the link between brain activity during sleep and mental health disorders has also attracted an interest from other funders: Dr Bartsch has just been awarded a 4-year Lilly Innovation Fellowship Award to extend this work into psychiatric patient cohorts. 

If you are interested to know more about a link between sleeping and learning you can watch a brief talk by Matt Jones. []

Please visit the EBI Website to learn more about the funding available from the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute, including Catalyst Fund.

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