Western society suffers chronic sleep deprivation, Jewish Nobel winner says

American neuroscientist Michael Rosbash won medicine prize for research on circadian rhythms, increasingly seen as having significant effects on our health

Brandeis University biology professor Michael Rosbash is one of the winners of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Medicine. (Courtesy of Brandeis University via JTA)
Brandeis University biology professor Michael Rosbash is one of the winners of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Medicine. (Courtesy of Brandeis University via JTA)

A Jewish American neuroscientist who this week won the Nobel Prize for Medicine has said Western society suffers from a permanent case of sleep deprivation.

“It’s been overlooked for a long time as a real public health problem,” Michael Rosbash of Brandeis University told the Guardian, days after being awarded the prize along with two other Americans for their research into the genes that control the body’s circadian rhythms.

“All of Western society is a little bit sleep deprived and, when I say a little bit, I mean chronically.”

Researchers believe modern, electrically-lit life has profound effects on our bodies, as artificial lighting, shift work and frequent travel between time zones wrecks havoc on our systems’ programming.

Rosbash, 74, along with Jeffrey Hall of the University of Maine and Michael Young of Rockefeller University in New York, used fruit flies to isolate a gene that controls the rhythm of a living organism’s daily life. The biological inner clocks regulate functions such as sleep, behavior, hormone levels and body temperature.

“Virtually everything in our body, from the secretion of hormones, to the preparation of digestive enzymes in the gut, to changes in blood pressure, are influenced in major ways by knowing what time of day these things will be needed,” Clifford Saper, professor of neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, explained to the newspaper.

Scientists believe disruptions to these inner clocks can be major contributors to the development of diabetes, heart disease, dementia and cancer.

Rosbash came to Brandeis in 1974 and is the Peter Gruber Endowed Chair in Neuroscience and professor of biology at the Jewish-founded nonsectarian school.

His parents were immigrants who fled Germany in 1938. His father was a cantor at Temple Ohabei Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Brookline, Massachusetts, not far from the Brandeis campus.

JTA contributed to this report.

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