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Cambridge University Science Magazine
New research from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) shows how your body's 'food clock' can become disturbed when you eat at odd times. This will be a familiar phenomenon for many, whether it be through late-night snacking, working night-shifts or simply overindulging in the festive season. More seriously, such food-clock desynchronisation could help uncover the basis of metabolic syndromes like diabetes and obesity. The work, led by Louis Ptacek MD at UCSF, found the molecule which is required to help reset the food clock when circumstances change.

The body possesses a 'master clock'- the circadian oscillator, which keeps time with the 24-hour daily cycle and co-ordinates with a tiny region of the brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus to regulate molecular oscillations in both the brain and body. There are numerous other clocks in the body, including the food clock, which follows its own rhythm. Its function is to help keep metabolism on an even keel, and can be modified by changes in eating patterns.

The food clock can become disturbed, just like the circadian oscillator does when you become jet-lagged, and eventually resets over time. The study uncovered a protein called PKCγ which is required for the reset process in mice. When laboratory mice were fed when they would usually be asleep, the healthy mice adjusted their waking hours over time to take advantage of this ‘midnight feast’. However, mice lacking the gene to make PKCγ did not make this change to their sleeping patterns.

According to Ptacek, the research might help explain why 'night owls' are more likely to be obese than early risers. "Understanding the molecular mechanism of how eating at the ‘wrong’ time of the day desynchronises the clocks in our body can facilitate the development of better treatments for disorders associated with night-eating syndrome, shift work and jet lag".

DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1218699110

Written by Rosy Southwell.