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New study sheds light on insomnia and its link to genes

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A recent study led by researchers affiliated with Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Broad Institute, and the University of Exeter Medical School in England has identified 57 gene regions associated with symptoms of insomnia.

The findings shed new light on the genetics of insomnia and its links to heart disease, and could potentially lead to the development of new ways of treating the disorder, according to a press release from Massachusetts General Hospital.

Richa Saxena, a Harvard Medical School associate professor of anaesthesia at Mass General and senior author of the report, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that the findings “open the door into its biology in a way that wasn’t possible before.”

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Previously, there were only four gene regions known to be associated with insomnia symptoms, according to Jacqueline M. Lane, a Harvard Medical School instructor at Mass. General who was one of the lead authors of the report, which was published in the journal Nature Genetics last week.

“Our findings confirm a role for genetics in insomnia symptoms and expand upon the four previously found gene [regions] for this condition,” Lane said in the press release. “All of these identified regions help us understand why some people get insomnia, which pathways and systems are affected, and point to possible new therapeutic targets.”

Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that affects approximately 10 to 20 percent of the population, and studies have suggested that about a third of the risk of insomnia is inherited, according to the hospital’s press release.

Those suffering from the disorder may have trouble falling asleep and lie in bed awake for long periods of time. They may also have a hard time staying asleep and get up the next day feeling tried and fatigued.

Saxena said women are more likely to suffer from insomnia.

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“As you age it gets more frequent,” she said. “It’s a very interesting disorder.”

Saxena said it took about a year and a half to complete this particular study, which looked at people who were between the ages of 40 and 70 years old.

Mass. General officials said the team of researchers analyzed data from more than 450,000 UK Biobank participants, 29 percent of whom reported frequent insomnia symptoms.

In addition to identifying the 57 gene regions associated with insomnia symptoms, the researchers also found that increased insomnia symptoms were causative of symptoms of depression and a reduced sense of well-being, and nearly doubled the risk of coronary artery disease, the press release said.

Samuel E. Jones of the University of Exeter, the co-lead author of the report, said the findings suggest that depression and heart disease may be a result of insomnia.

“Insomnia has a really significant impact on millions of people worldwide,” Jones said in the press release. “We’ve long known there’s a link between insomnia and chronic disease. Now our findings suggest that depression and heart disease are actually a result of persistent insomnia.”

Researchers hope that gaining insights such as these will lead to better treatments in the future.

“All of these identified regions are possible new therapeutic targets for insomnia, and 16 of these regions contain known drug targets,” Lane said in the press release. “As well, the new causal relationships indicate the potential usefulness of insomnia therapeutics as possible treatments for coronary artery disease and depression.”

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Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.