We've all experienced sleepless nights when we have something on our minds, but new research has shown that insomnia isn't necessarily just about what's going on in your head. In the search for a biological mechanism behind the sleep disorder, researchers in Europe have identified seven genes that increase the likelihood of developing insomnia, proving that it isn't solely a psychological condition.

Across a sample of 113,006 subjects, an international team of scientists homed in on seven specific genes that were commonly associated with complaints of insomnia. The genes identified were found to have a role in exocytosis, a process where cells release molecules to communicate with their environment, and the regulation of transcription, a mechanism where DNA is read in order to make an RNA copy.

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"As compared to the severity, prevalence and risks of insomnia, only few studies targeted its causes," says Professor Eus Van Someren, one of the lead researchers in the study. "Insomnia is all too often dismissed as being 'all in your head.' Our research brings a new perspective. Insomnia is also in the genes."

A genetic overlap with anxiety disorders, depression and neuroticism was also found across the seven identified genes. This suggests that insomnia is not necessarily a secondary symptom of those other disorders, but rather something more fundamentally intertwined.

"This is an interesting finding, because these characteristics tend to go hand in hand with insomnia," says Anke Hammerschlag first author of the study. "We now know that this is partly due to the shared genetic basis."

The study also found the risk genes expressed themselves differently in men and women, suggesting that gender can play a significant part in the different biological mechanisms that lead to insomnia.

"We also found a difference between men and women in terms of prevalence," says professor Danielle Posthuma. "In the sample we studied, including mainly people older than 50 years, 33 percent of the women reported to suffer from insomnia. For men this was 24 percent."

Earlier in 2017, a team from Rockefeller University discovered a specific genetic mutation that was seen to alter a person's circadian rhythm in a study that was highly focused on one specific category of sleep disruption. This research offers scientists a new, and broader, insight into the genetic triggers that dominate our sleep cycles. By developing a greater understanding into the biological foundations of insomnia, the researchers hope to find new ways of treating this debilitating condition in the future.

The study was published in the journal Nature Genetics.

Source: Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam