Out of sync with the world: Depressed people suffer with ‘broken body clocks’

Out of sync with the world: Depressed people suffer with ‘broken body clocks’

  • There is a link between depression and changes in the body’s circadian rhythm, or body clock
  • There is a daily rhythm to the activity of many genes across many different areas of the brain
  • The pattern of gene activity is so distinctive that it can be used to estimate the hour of someone’s death
  • In people with depression clock is so disrupted that day pattern of gene activity can look like night pattern


PUBLISHED: 11:39 GMT, 14 May 2013 | UPDATED: 11:48 GMT, 14 May 2013

Depressed people are out of sync with the rest of the world because their body clocks are broken, according to a new study.

The discovery of disrupted body clocks in the brains of people with depression is the first link to be found between the condition and changes in the circadian rhythm.

It is hoped that the finding will allow for the development of better treatments.Every cell in the human body runs on a 24-hour clock, tuned to the night-day, light-dark cycles in nature.

The brain acts as a timekeeper, keeping this cellular clock in sync with the outside world so that it can govern our appetite, sleep and moods.

However, new research shows that the clock may be broken in the brains of people with depression – even at the level of the gene activity inside their brain cells.

The discovery, published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was made by studying differences in the donated brains of people who had been depressed and those who had not.

The research also revealed a previously unknown daily rhythm to the activity of many genes across many areas of the brain – expanding the sense of how crucial the body’s clock is.

In a normal brain, the pattern of gene activity at a given time of the day is so distinctive that the authors could use it to accurately estimate the hour of death of the brain donor.

However, in severely depressed patients, the circadian clock was so disrupted that a patient’s ‘day’ pattern of gene activity could look like a ‘night’ pattern, and vice versa.

Lead author Dr Jun Li, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Genetics at University of Michigan Medical School, in the U.S., described how the approach allowed the researchers to accurately back-predict the hour of the day when each non-depressed individual died – literally plotting them out on a 24-hour clock by noting which genes were active at the time they died.

They looked at 12,000 gene transcripts isolated from six regions of 55 brains from people who did not have depression. This provided a detailed understanding of how gene activity varied throughout the day in the brain regions studied.

However, when the team tried to do the same in the brains of 34 depressed people, the gene activity was off by hours. The cells looked as if it were an entirely different time of day.

Dr Li said: ‘There really was a moment of discovery.

‘It was when we realised that many of the genes that show 24-hour cycles in the normal individuals were well-known circadian rhythm genes – and when we saw that the people with depression were not synchronised to the usual solar day in terms of this gene activity.

‘It’s as if they were living in a different time zone than the one they died in.’

Depression affects one in ten adults in the UK at any one time but it is slightly more common in women.

At any one time one in 20 people in the UK will be experiencing severe depression.

The main symptoms are lasting feelings of sadness and hopelessness, losing interest in things you used to enjoy and feeling tearful.

There can also be physical symptoms such as fatigue, sleeping badly, having no appetite and aches and pains.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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