RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Insomnia isn't just a problem for people. It also affects animals and even insects. NPR's Jon Hamilton takes us to a lab where researchers are studying fruit flies with insomnia in an effort to help humans sleep better.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: When it comes to sleep, fruit flies are a lot like people. Normally, they rest at night. And they prefer to sleep in a place that's dark.
DRAGANA ROGULJA: Here, we're going into the room where we actually do a lot of our sleep recordings.
HAMILTON: Dragana Rogulja runs this lab at Harvard Medical School.
ROGULJA: And what you can see here is that there's red light in this room, and it's dark. And that's because flies don't really see red light.
HAMILTON: The dark room lets researchers program night and day using artificial lights. Rogulja says during experiments, infrared motion detectors track the activity of individual flies.
ROGULJA: So we can do literally thousands of flies at the same time, monitor their sleep and activity patterns.
HAMILTON: And Rogulja says experiments here and elsewhere show that flies need sleep to function well.
ROGULJA: If they don't sleep enough, their memory is not as good. They can, you know, have cognitive decline.
HAMILTON: Just like people.
ROGULJA: Last night, I didn't sleep well. And I - you know, I can feel it. So I can kind of intuitively, you know, relate to (laughter) these animals that we are studying.
HAMILTON: Rogulja says her lab specializes in creating flies that have trouble sleeping.
ROGULJA: We're making them insomniacs by manipulating their DNA. So we can dial down or turn off genes, one by one. And we actually know what these genes are.
HAMILTON: This approach has helped the lab identify genes involved in several different types of insomnia.
ROGULJA: We found a gene that regulates how flies fall asleep. So if you don't have this gene, it takes them about an hour and a half longer to fall asleep. But once they fall asleep, they're fine. They stay asleep.
HAMILTON: Then there are flies that have the type of insomnia that affects Rogulja.
ROGULJA: And you can see, as soon as we turn off the lights, they start sort of winding down their activity. They fall asleep quickly. But then, after several hours, they wake up. And then they continue waking up throughout the night, which is exactly what my - how my behavior is on most nights.
HAMILTON: It's a common problem and one that becomes more common with age. Rogulja says sleeping pills tend to work people better for people who have trouble getting to sleep than people who have trouble staying asleep.
ROGULJA: Current sleep medications can be very helpful. I've used them myself and, you know, they can be great. But it could be better.
HAMILTON: Better would mean new drugs able to target the specific brain pathways responsible for each type of insomnia. Rogulja says the research on fruit flies is revealing those pathways by identifying which genes are involved.
ROGULJA: Genetically, we can separate these different aspects of sleep regulation. So, in other words, we can find factors that specifically regulate how we fall asleep, factors that regulate how we stay asleep, factors that regulate how we wake up, etc.
HAMILTON: And those factors should eventually lead to new drugs that reduce insomnia in flies and people. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL FLY AWAY")
ALISON KRAUSS: (Singing) Just a few more weary days, and then I'll fly away to a land where joys will never end. I'll fly away.
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