There’s no escaping your biological clock. It’s not just a feature of your brain – as recent studies have revealed, every single cell in your body is influenced by its own circadian rhythm. That’s why it appears that there’s also no getting around jet lag, that most frustrating of modern phenomena.
A new study, however, suggests that the future might be quite different. Based on the discovery of a signaling molecule in the eye that lets the brain know when it’s time to be awake and when it’s time to sleep, there’s a chance that we could develop eye drops to influence the molecule, and thus influence our brain’s perception of whether it’s day or night.
Theoretically, bespoke eye drops could cancel out jet lag. Now that would be rather wonderful, wouldn’t it?
First, let’s step back a little. The study, published in the Journal of Physiology, looked at the eyes of laboratory rats, whose biology is not too dissimilar from our own. It turns out that they have a compound in their eyes named vasopressin.
This signaling molecule can also be found in the brain’s suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), the Mary Poppins-sounding cranial region that is the “control center” for the body’s biological clock. Until now, it’s not been clear what the SCN’s vasopressin actually did.
The SCN is not actually knowledgeable of the time itself – after all, that’s a distinctly human concept. Instead, it gets its information from the reactions of the eyes’ retinal ganglion to light levels. More light suggests that it’s daytime, and these ganglions send signals back to the brain telling you that you should be awake.
That’s why using bright phone screens at night prevents you from falling asleep quickly. This is also why jet lag messes up your biological clock – the cells let your brain know its nighttime when it assumes, based on your usual routine, that it should be daytime.
As it turns out, the eyes’ ganglion cells also contain vasopressin too. As discovered by the University of Edinburgh-led team, this signaling molecule travels from the eye’s retina to the brain in order to let it know what time of day it is.
Could this be the end of dreaded jetlag? Tymonko Galyna/Shutterstock
This got them thinking – what if you could use an eye drop to boost or reduce the amount of vasopressin that is transmitted? You could effectively fool the brain that it’s daytime or night.
“Our exciting results show a potentially new pharmacological route to manipulate our internal biological clocks,” coordinating author Mike Ludwig, a professor of physiology at the University of Edinburgh, said in a statement.
“We are still a long way off from this,” he hastened to add. Shut up and take our money, we say.