Zebrafishes suffering from USH2A have a disturbed sleep rhythm
Are patients suffering from Usher Syndrome so tired because of the huge efforts made in connection with their poor hearing and eyesight or is something else going on? Researchers in the Radboudumc try to find an answers to this question. There are indications that perhaps there is more going on, a genetic cause. The people of the Radboudumc have been busy trying to unravel Usher Syndrome for decades already. This summer, the research into ‘The recognition of sleeping problems with patients with the USH2A gene’ will start. Stichting Ushersyndroom (Dutch Usher Syndrome Foundation) will finance a large part of this study.
Researchers have used the zebrafish model since several years. In the laboratory of the Radboudumc both healthy zebrafishes and fishes suffering from Usher Syndrome are swimming about. Researchers noticed that the sleeping pattern shown by the fishes with a mutated USH2A gene differs from that of their healthy congeners. Actually, they sleep more often during the day and less often at night. According to Erwin, project leader of the zebrafish lab and engaged in research into Usher Syndrome for years already, the sleeping fishes are quite remarkable. It is day, there is sufficient light in the aquarium and the eyesight of the fishes is still good enough to be able to properly see light and dark. Still, they regularly fall asleep during the day.
The sleep-wake rhythm is strongly controlled by light. The retina sends signals to the pineal gland in the brains to make the sleeping hormone melatonin when the light intensity decreases. It is known that a decreasing light perception can disturb this system. However, RP patients regularly mention sleeping problems and fatigue in an early stage already, independent of the seriousness of their visual impairment.
Usher Syndrome is also called ‘fragmentary observation’: both hearing and seeing are done in small fragments that subsequently have to be made into a whole. This is hard work for the brain. Therefore it is not surprising that many people suffering from Usher Syndrome are tired quickly and have a higher chance of getting overstimulated and loosing energy. The energy-absorbing process of continuously compensating the one sense with the other leads to fatigue.
Sleep enables the body to recover, such as replenish energy sources, adjust muscles and other cells and reduce stress. While sleeping, we also process all we have seen, heard and done during the day. The brains are stimulated all day and have to process all this information.
Quality of sleep
The quality of sleep depends on the deep sleep, the so-called REM sleep. This makes the body recover. A good night’s rest means quickly falling asleep and sleeping all night through. In case of insufficient REM sleep, you do not feel refreshed well when you have to get up. Non-optimal REM sleep over a longer period will lead to chronic fatigue with a risk of other physical complaints.
Not tired at all
At the end of the day, when it begins to grow dark and the lights are switched off in the zebrafish lab, the last round is made in the lab. Many fishes have become less active already and are hanging around in the water without moving. They also do not react when Erwin van Wijk is walking along the aquariums.
When visiting the zebrafish lab in the evenings, he tries to make as little noise as possible and the lights are dimmed. When he switches off the lights to close the lab and leaves the lab, some groups of zebrafishes stay awake and active. The zebrafishes with mutations in the USH2A gene are not going to sleep, they are not yet tired at all.
Expression in the pineal gland
The most frequently mutated RP genes (USH2A and EYS) are both highly expressed in the pineal gland of various animal models. Researchers show that the proteins of these genes involved are not only present in large quantities in the eyes and ears, but in the pineal gland as well. This may mean that the proteins concerned also play an important role in the pineal gland and in the regulation of the day and night rhythm.
Zebrafishes with mutations in the USH2A gene show a deviating sleep-wake rhythm, while these test animals hardly show any retina degeneration.
Based on these findings researchers suspect that the sleeping problems of these groups of patients are the cause of the disorder and not just the consequence of a reduced visual function.
A treatment for sleep-related complaints with people who have mutations in the USH2A and EYS genes, may substantially improve their quality of life. In this project clinical and fundamental research are combined in order to comprehend these problems. The common results of these two research lines may give some tools to improve the care of patients suffering from RP and Usher Syndrome together with ophthalmologists and sleep experts.
Various research institutes are involved in this project: the Radboudumc under the leadership of Erwin van Wijk, Slaap/Waakcentrum SEIN, Hospital Gelderse Vallei, Radboud University and the Donders Institute.
This four-year study will start this summer and the costs are estimated to be € 285.000,=. Stichting Ushersyndroom (Dutch Usher Syndrome Foundation) makes a contribution of € 125.000 with co-financing by the Dutch Dr. Vaillantfonds. Other funds that have contributed are: LSBS, ANVVB, Support Fund UitZicht (Beheer ’t Schild), the Gelderse Blindenstichting, FNWI/IWWR.