Fall 2022

Regulating the body clock

Medical School scientists link the disruption of a specific gene with symptoms of brain conditions like autism spectrum disorder and ataxia


Every creature—from the earthworm in the dirt to the human reading this story—instinctively knows when it’s bedtime.

That’s because all living things are subject to circadian rhythms (and the genetically hardwired body clocks that drive them) that dictate physical, mental, and behavioral changes based on a 24-hour schedule.

In people, body clocks exist in every cell throughout the body, with a “master clock” located in the brain. When all of these clocks are synchronized and working well, we get higher-quality sleep, feel more alert when we’re awake, and otherwise function better. 

“But if these body clocks are disrupted, what are the consequences to our health?” asks Ruifeng Cao, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus. 

Scientists like Cao have long acknowledged a connection between circadian rhythm disruption and adverse health conditions, including brain conditions like autism spectrum disorder and ataxia. 

“Many patients with [autism or ataxia] experience sleep problems,” Cao explains. “When they sleep better, their symptoms improve. That indicates an intricate connection between the body clock and the disease.”

The specific genetic mechanisms that contribute to that connection, however, have remained a mystery—until recently. 

Fueled by support from the Winston and Maxine Wallin Neuroscience Discovery Fund, Cao and a team of researchers used animal models to show that when a specific clock gene, known as Bmal1, was disrupted in the brain, symptoms of autism spectrum disorder and ataxia developed. 

It’s a breakthrough discovery, Cao says, one that could someday lead to the development of drugs that regulate the healthy expression of the clock genes—and give people with autism and ataxia relief from some of their symptoms.