This worm tells us why we’re depressed, sleepless

August 5th, 2008 - 12:49 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Aug 5 (IANS) Researchers seem to have uncovered key insights into the origins of depression, schizophrenia and insomnia, by examining the unlikeliest of candidates: worms. A new project, led by Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF) scientist Kenneth Miller, examined the eyeless microscopic worm known as C. elegans that shies away from certain kinds of light.

Researchers stumbled on several key findings, the most important being that exposing paralysed C. elegans to ultraviolet light restored normal levels of movement in them.

Miller’s group at OMRF traced the light reaction to a tiny molecular sensor encoded by a gene they named LITE-1. “This sensor doesn’t resemble any other light sensors previously discovered,” said Miller.

Although humans lack this ultraviolet light sensor, Miller’s discovery provides a window for understanding how the molecular signals in our nerve cells allow them to talk to one another to produce perceptions, behaviours, learning and memory.

“That doesn’t mean shining an ultraviolet light on people in wheelchairs will suddenly allow them to walk,” said Miller. “But it does give us a tool that we can use to solve the mysteries of nerve cell communication and could ultimately help us understand the biology of everything from sleep and memory to depression.”

“The new work from Ken Miller’s lab has identified a new way that organisms can sense light, distinct from the previously known light-sensing mechanism used in the eye,” said Michael Koelle, of Yale University School of Medicine.

“It will be interesting to see whether the LITE-1 light-sensing mechanism will also lead to new insights into human sensory perception.”

In spite of 35 years of intensive research by hundreds of labs studying these eyeless worms, no one had discovered that they can respond robustly to light.

The new study appeared this week in PLoS Biology.

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