Lipidomics study identifies common biomarkers of sleep debt in humans and rats.

Stating that sleep is an essential biological process seems as obvious as saying that the sun rises every morning. Yet, researchers’ understanding of the molecular mechanisms underlying the effects of sleep loss is still in its earliest stages. The risk for a host of metabolic disorders, including weight gain, diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease, associated with reduced sleep is driving basic investigations on the topic.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team from the University of Pennsylvania, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Groningen found common molecules signifying perturbed metabolism in response to sleep restriction in a comprehensive metabolic profiling of blood from both rats and humans. Their findings point to an overall shift in how lipids are metabolized and evidence of systemic oxidative stress due to decreased sleep in both species.

Oxidative stress and lipid metabolism are important factors in metabolic diseases, although further work needs to be done to establish a mechanistic link between the markers found and specific diseases, stress the researchers.

The team theorise that one possibility is that sleep drives metabolite clearance and so acts as a reparative process at the metabolic level.  The impact of sleep restriction on circadian biology is particularly relevant given what is known about how metabolites also oscillate in humans on a daily basis.  Metabolites are chemical intermediates or end products of metabolism, so while they are generated through the breakdown of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, their function is not restricted to these processes.  They also have roles in signaling, regulating enzymatic activity, growth, and development.

The team subjected rats and humans to chronic sleep restriction over five days. Sleep restriction, versus sleep deprivation, curtails sleep time, but does not eliminate sleep.  The team explain that sleep restriction more closely represents real-world situations in humans and is a condition experienced by millions of people every day.

In both studies, metabolite levels were compared in blood that was collected following adequate sleep opportunity in rats and humans to establish a baseline and then following restricted sleep. The team then produced a comprehensive metabolite profile from the blood of sleep-restricted rats and humans. Of the 38 metabolites they found to be unique in the sleep-restricted rats, half were known lipids. A majority of the metabolites from the sleep-restricted human participants were also lipid or fatty acid-related compounds.

Seven types of a phospholipid called plasmalogens, related to oxidative stress, were elevated in the sleep-restricted rats. Overall, they found a significant shift in lipid metabolism, with sleep restriction, with higher levels of phospholipids in both rats and humans. The team found that some neurotransmitters and gut metabolites (possibly from intestinal microbes) are also altered due to sleep restriction.

The researcher explain that while they don’t yet know why the lipids are changed in both species, these shifts are very intriguing, given the epidemiological links between restricted sleep and metabolic disorders, such as diabetes, obesity, and metabolomics syndrome.

When they compared the list of significantly altered metabolites in rats and humans compared to the baseline before sleep restriction, they found that two metabolites, oxalic acid and diacylglycerol 36:3, were depleted under sleep-restricted conditions and restored after recovery sleep in both species. Oxalic acid is a waste product derived from processing foods in the diet such as plants, primarily from the breakdown of vitamin C and some amino acids. Diacylglycerol is a precursor molecule in the production of triglycerides, a molecule in which most fat is stored in the body, and also has a function in signaling in cells. The researchers suggest that these two molecules could serve as potential biomarkers since they are present in both species.

The team state that these cross-species markers are exciting for a couple reasons.  First, there is a need for quantitative markers of sleep debt and sleep quality, and this approach suggests that metabolites may be useful in this regard. Second, because the researchers found the same metabolites in the humans and rats, it opens the door for the medical community investigate mechanistic questions regarding the metabolic effects of sleep in rats that may have clinical and therapeutic application.

The team summise that overall, this work provides a potential link between the known pathologies of reduced sleep duration and metabolic dysfunction.  This is consistent with other studies that suggest that one of the functions of sleep is restorative, involving clearance of metabolites in the brain and reinstating an antioxidant balance in peripheral tissues. Sleep loss, on the other hand, induces an oxidative metabolic state.

Source:  University of Pennsylvania


Identification of regulatory genes and pathways in white adipogenic precursors.  White preadipocytes were induced to differentiate in culture to form mature, lipid storing adipocytes. The cells are fixed and lipid droplets are stained red with oil-red-o.  Credit:  University of Pennsylvania 2014.

Identification of regulatory genes and pathways in white adipogenic precursors. White preadipocytes were induced to differentiate in culture to form mature, lipid storing adipocytes. The cells are fixed and lipid droplets are stained red with oil-red-o. Credit: University of Pennsylvania 2014.



One comment

  • Gerald Hecht, Ph.D

    Yes it’s also possible that sleep (more so in rodent models than humans, obviously) increases Brown Adipose Tissue (BAT), and associated BAT Thermogenesis.


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