If you’re taking a flight from San Francisco to Paris, it could take six to nine days to fully recover from jet lag–longer than some vacations. But transatlantic flights may eventually be a lot less painful. Researchers have discovered a way to instantly reset the part of the brain that controls when we fall asleep and potentially eliminate jet lag.
Using a laser and optical fiber to send a quick flash of light into the eye, the researchers artificially controlled neurons in the brain’s master biological clock.
“The master biological clock is like the conductor of an orchestra,” says PhD student Michael Tackenberg, part of a team of researchers at Vanderbilt University who worked on the study. “It controls a variety of biological rhythms that occur throughout the body, ranging from metabolism to immune function. Sleep is one of these processes.”
By stimulating or suppressing the neurons in that part of the brain–using mice, which happen to have a biological clock almost identical to humans–the researchers could quickly switch an animal from a day to night schedule, or vice versa.
It’s not nearly as simple as just flashing a light, however. The scientists also had to genetically engineer mice with brains that have a special light-sensitive protein. If the technique is eventually used in humans, it would probably involve gene therapy that uses viruses to insert new genes into cells. It might also use an implanted LED light.
“Like deep brain stimulation currently used in some neurological disorders, optogenetics would be an invasive procedure,” Tackenberg says.
Still, it would theoretically have some advantages over chugging coffee or taking sleeping pills. “Generally this type of direct stimulation would offer the benefits of being able to specifically target a brain region,” he says. That means it can act more quickly, without having the side effects a drug might have.
The idea could also be useful for more than jet lag. “I would imagine that it would be used as a preventative treatment–preventing misalignment between the clock and the daily light cycle brought about through shift work, the use of bright electronics at night, or cross-time-zone travel,” Tackenberg says. For people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, the stimulation could make trick the brain’s clock into thinking that a gray day in February is actually a long summer day.
This type of therapy isn’t going to be available anytime soon, but it’s possible other cures for jet lag may be on the market more quickly.
A new experimental pill can also shift the body’s clock from day to night. Other researchers have found that interfering with certain receptors can eliminate jet lag. And a Finnish startup is already selling earbuds that shine bursts of light into ears to help regulate jet lag–though it isn’t clear that it actually works.
For now, unfortunately, the best way to treat jet lag may still be sunshine, sleep, and time.