updated 7/4/2006 8:42:23 AM ET 2006-07-04T12:42:23

A newly discovered clue to the workings of a protein that helps regulate sleep could point scientists to better treatments for sleep-related illnesses.

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A gene that affects the body clock doesn’t work the way it was originally thought, researchers reported Monday in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A mutation in the CK1 gene, called the tau mutation, had been thought to slow the gene’s activity, allowing the body clock to speed up.

But researchers in Michigan and Utah now report that the mutation speeds up the body clock by increasing the activity of the gene rather than slowing it.

“The key to developing treatments for problems like depression and insomnia — disorders influenced by circadian rhythm — is being able to predict how the body’s internal clock can be controlled,” Dr. David Virshup of the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute said in a statement.

Virshup and Daniel Forger of the University of Michigan were co-lead authors of the report.

A protein called PER helps set the body’s biological clock and the researchers studied how fast PER degraded in cells.

The theory had been that the tau mutation would cause PER to build up more quickly. But when they tested the idea in mouse cells the circadian rhythm sped up as the CK1 gene became more active and PER disappeared more quickly than normal.

Funding for the study was provided by the National Institutes of Health, the Huntsman Cancer Institute and the Sloan Foundation.

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