A flurry of articles recently announced the discovery of seven new risk genes for insomnia. In an era when new genes are being identified for everything from infertility to schizophrenia, you might regard this discovery as simply the soup du jour.
Not me. Growing up when trouble sleeping was attributed to psychological factors, coffee, and alcohol, I was elated by this news. We stand to gain so much from knowing the genetic underpinnings of insomnia.
A Biological Basis for Insomnia
The most immediate benefit of the discovery is that it affirms what scientists have suspected for years: there is a biological basis for insomnia. This is common knowledge among sleep researchers but not so well known among members of the public or even doctors. They may still blame insomnia on psychological factors and poor self-control and dismiss it as a complaint unworthy of attention or treatment.
“Insomnia is all too often dismissed as being ‘all in your head,’” said Eus Van Someren, a lead researcher on the project, quoted in a press release. “Our research brings a new perspective. Insomnia is also in the genes.”
Genes contain the information needed to make proteins, and proteins do most of the work in the cells in our bodies and brains. The identification of insomnia risk genes suggests that vulnerability to insomnia has a neurobiological basis. It is likely driven by an excess or deficit of key neurochemicals or abnormalities in the circuitry of the brain.
What the Discovery Doesn’t Mean
People sometimes confuse the idea of genetic risk with biological determinism—the belief that hereditary factors are the sole determinants of who we are and the health challenges we face. The assumption is that if constitutional factors predispose a certain disease or health condition, then nothing can be done to alter its course.
There are a small number of irreversible diseases caused by mutations in a single gene. If you’re born with a certain mutation in the HTT gene, for example, you inevitably develop Huntington disease. Nothing can be done to change this.
But most diseases and conditions—insomnia included—are complex. No single gene determines whether you get them or not. Multiple genetic factors likely come into play, increasing the odds of developing a disorder but not making it inevitable. Environmental, social, psychological, and behavioral factors may play as big a role in determining whether you develop insomnia or not.
It might be possible to inherit several insomnia risk genes but, thanks to a privileged set of circumstances, never experience trouble sleeping a day in your life. Likewise, despite being biologically predisposed to experience insomnia, you may be able to manage the disorder some or even most of the time with cognitive and behavioral techniques.
Benefits of Genetic Studies
Genetic studies such as this one will enable scientists to trace the pathways by which insomnia develops and identify the biological mechanisms involved. In turn, insomnia treatments can be developed that alter these particular systems, rather than being aimed at systems merely suspected of involvement. Drugs can be developed to target the root causes of insomnia rather than simply tranquilizing the brain.
Other Discoveries and Implications
- The insomnia risk genes are known to be associated with disorders that often occur with insomnia: restless legs syndrome, anxiety disorders, depression, and type 2 diabetes. Likewise, insomnia was found to have a shared genetic background with neuroticism and poor sense of well-being, traits that often occur in people with insomnia.
- Some genetic variants associated with insomnia in women were different from the variants associated with insomnia in men, so the biological mechanisms driving insomnia may in some cases be different. If this is true, insomnia treatments prescribed for women may in some cases need to be different from those prescribed for men.
Every new genetic study brings us closer to the time when trouble sleeping will be treated based on the cause of the insomnia rather than its symptoms. Surely that’s something to celebrate!