Could Fruit Flies Hold the Key To Better Sleep?

As we know, scientists are constantly on the lookout for new ways to help us all get a better night’s sleep, keeping us alert and healthy throughout the day.

But new research being carried out on insomniac fruit flies could hold the key to those who suffer from sleep deprivation as a result of conditions such as sleep apnoea.

A neurobiologist from Washington University in St Louis in the US called Paul Shaw is studying the insects to try and uncover some of the secrets surrounding sleep.

The reason that fruit flies were chosen is because their genes are supposedly easy to manipulate.

Dr Shaw says: “I can take a human gene that’s involved in patterning your hand, I can take that human gene and put it in a fly and I get a wing.”

In particular, Shaw has been taking flies which are missing the gene which is responsible for memory and putting them to sleep for two days, either by using light to activate their brain neurons or with drugs.

He found that after sleep, the flies behaved normally, and said: “These animals are still broken, the gene is still missing, the brain structure is gone. Somehow sleep has allowed the brain to adapt and do interesting things.” 


Similar research has been carried out by Dr Amita Sehgal at the University of Pennsylvania, who has identified similarities between humans and fruit flies in the genes which control our body clocks.

In fact, fruit flies are one of the most similar creatures in the animal kingdom to humans when it comes to sleep.

Just like us, when flies are deprived of sleep, they need to catch up on their ‘sleep debt’ with a few extra hours.

Much like how a thermostat measures the heat in a home and heats it up if it gets too cold, scientists have identified a ‘homeostat’ in the brain of fruit flies which puts the fly to sleep when they’ve been awake for too long.

Dr Jeffret Donlea says of this ‘switch’ in the brain: “There is a similar group of neurons in a region of the human brain.

“These neurons are also electrically active during sleep and, like the flies’ cells, are the targets of general anaesthetics that put us to sleep.

“It’s therefore likely that a molecular mechanism similar to the one we have discovered in flies also operates in humans.”

More work is currently being carried out on fruit flies which will hopefully reveal more about the inner workings of our own brains, and help us to understand what helps (or prevents us) from getting to sleep.

For all the latest sleep-related news and blogs, keep checking our blog here at Sleepy People.