While it has been known for some time that circadian rhythms govern 24-hour sleep cycles, a new animal study has discovered a more rapidly revolving four-hour cycle caused by the neurohormone dopamine. The study, conducted by a Douglas Mental Health Institute and McGill University research team, is the first to identify this daily dopamine cycle, which may be implicated in the disrupted sleep-wake cycles seen in some mental issues such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
In the past, sleep abnormalities were associated with circadian rhythm disruption; however the study’s results suggest that these abnormalities actually stem from an imbalance of ultradian rhythms and the larger 48-hour dopamine cycles that dictate them. Published in the online journal eLife, the study involved genetically modified mice with a disrupted dopamine transporter gene, finding it to lead to longer four-hour dopamine cycles/ultradian rhythms. They found that not only did dopamine levels fluctuate in synchrony with ultradian activity cycles, but that they also were “strongly” predictive of ultradian periods as well. These fluctuations caused the four-hour cycles to extend to as long as 48 hours, providing a possible explanation for periods of mania and depression that can last for days in bipolar disorder.
“Our data indicates that an arousal regulating, dopaminergic ultradian oscillator (DUO) operates in the mammalian brain, which normally cycles in harmony with the circadian clock, but can desynchronize when dopamine tone is elevated, thereby producing aberrant patterns of arousal which are strikingly similar to perturbed sleep-wake cycles comorbid with psychopathology,” said Ian Blum, researcher at McGill University and lead author of the study.
In other words, dopamine spikes (caused by sugar, caffeine or anything associated with fun) appear to knock natural rhythms out of alignment. This opens up the possibility for unstable sleep and thought patterns, possibly leading to the development of mental disorders later on.
The discovery of a dopaminergic ultradian oscillator (DUO) has major applications for not only future forms of treatment, but also for improving the many classes of drugs that act on dopamine, too. For instance, the authors found that aberrations in ultradian rhythms can be found in psychostimulant treatment, providing insight for the next generation of dopamine targeting medications (i.e. selective dopamine reuptake inhibitors, or DRIs). Contrastingly, they found an antipsychotic (haloperidol) to have the opposite effect, stabilizing the four hour patterns in the mice.
The Douglas Mental Health Institute and McGill University research team’s new data suggest that when the ultradian rhythm, or oscillation as they refer to it, is dysregulated, sleep becomes disturbed and mania will be induced in bipolar patients. The investigators believe that oscillator imbalance may also be associated with the disrupted brain patterns seen in schizophrenia episodes in addition to mood disorders like the aforementioned bipolar disorder.
Although what is learned about the brain’s natural four-hour dopamine cycles will probably not do much to reduce the prevalence of some mental disorders in general, it will likely be invaluable in the development of less harmful medications in the long run.
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Written by Chase Beckwith, Sovereign Health Group writer