When you're starving and tired, how does your brain decide whether you should sleep or keep hunting for food? This basic survival decision may be hardwired into two genes, and scientists have figured out to control them.

The brain systems that control sleep and eating are connected in most mammals, including humans. Scientists have long known what many of us have realized from pulling all-nighters: Sleep deprivation makes you hungry. But when you're starving, it's hard to sleep.

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It turns out fruit flies have a similar response to starvation, and a group of researchers decided to study the food-or-sleep mechanism in these insects to shed light on human behavior. Now the researchers say that they'd isolated two genes, Clock and cycle, that regulate circadian rhythms. Neurobiologist Scott Waddell, a co-author on the study, said:

This work determines part of the neural mechanism that mediates a conflict in a hungry fly's brain in deciding whether to seek food or sleep. It provides a foundation for understanding how the neural control of these two homeostatic behaviors is integrated in the brain.

Wadell and colleagues studied hungry flies whose Clock and cycle genes were missing alongside an ordinary control.

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According to a release about the study, published yesterday in Current Biology:

Their results showed a three-to-four-fold reduction in sleep in starved flies missing the Clock and cycle genes compared to flies possessing these genes. The findings therefore suggest that both Clock and cycle help the flies to regulate sleep when they are food deprived.

"This is a significant advance in how we approach behavioral genetics," said Alex Keene, PhD, a post-doctoral researcher in NYU's department of biology and the study's lead author. "We know that the brain is wired to engage in more than one behavior at a time, but less clear is how the brain chooses between these behaviors. These findings are transformative because they show that a gene can control sleep in a context-specific fashion. In the future, we will need to study animals in different environmental conditions in order to fully understand how the brain controls behavior. "

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The question, it seems to me, is how much we can tamper with this food-or-sleep mechanism. Could we produce a drug or gene therapy that would cause starving people to sleep themselves into oblivion? It's the perfect solution for dictators in dystopia - lace the water with something that causes Clock and cycle to go into overdrive, and watch as the starving masses fall asleep instead of tearing your palace down in a giant food riot.

via Current Biology