How do we maintain a healthy biological clock?
During Seeing Stars Leiden all the lights around Leiden Observatory will be switched off for an hour. The more lights that go out, the more stars we’ll be able to see. For the LUMC, this is the perfect moment to think about our biological clock, the topic researchers from the BioClock consortium are looking into.
The BioClock Consortium is an interdisciplinary network of universities, civil society partners, local government and other stakeholders. They share a goal: to understand how we can maintain a healthy biological clock in our modern 24-hour society. The coordinators of the consortium are Joke Meijer, Professor of Neurophysiology and head of the Circadian Clocks group at the LUMC, and Dr Laura Kervezee, a researcher at the LUMC.
Specific advice for society
The consortium comprises 12 projects and 25 young researchers. ‘At the moment we’ve been going for a year and are still in a bit of a start-up phase, but nearly all 25 researchers have started. And that is fantastic to see,’ says Laura Kervezee. ‘At the end of the research programme, we hope that as a consortium we’ll have an impact on society. We hope to be able to offer specific advice on the biological clock for the elderly, students and night-shift workers, for example, to help these people become healthier.’ The research will take six years in total. A number of pilots have already been done and the first results are trickling in.
Blurred boundary between day and night
‘We know that working night shifts influences the biological clock and thus your health. This also applies to people who see a lot of light before they go to sleep. With artificial light, you can also see that the influences of the seasons are much less obvious as far as light is concerned. In effect, we can always leave the lights on. This means that the boundary between day and night is blurring. The biological clock can affect lots of processes in the body but needs the information from light and dark to properly adjust. As soon as the contrast between light and dark is lost, the biological clock weakens and the rest of the body finds it harder to adapt.’
Research into timing of vaccinations
Kervezee is working on two LUMC projects focusing on the biological clock. Together with Dr Ramon Arens and PhD candidate Ward Vleeshouwers from the Department of Immunology, she is researching the timing of vaccinations and how the biological clock plays a role in this. ‘The biological clock controls a lot of processes in the body. Just think about how your body temperature is low at night and higher during the day. If you have a fever, you have bouts of this too. But this clock also controls your heart rate, metabolism and immune system. In our research we want to understand how the biological clock controls our immune system and how we can use that to improve the timing of vaccinations or immunotherapy and to see if it matters at all. If it turns out that it does, that will be an important starting point for optimising how vaccinations and immunotherapy work.’
Different approach to sleep
The other research Kervezee is working on focuses on the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at the LUMC. ‘A common complaint from patients in the hospital is that they sleep so badly. We know that sleep is really important for patients’ health and recovery. Together with Dr David van Westerloo, an intensivist at the ICU, and PhD candidate Floor Hiemstra, I am researching whether we can improve the sleep and biological clock of ICU patients. This might mean adapting the hospital environment to the biological clock. There is little contrast between day and night at the ICU.’
Photo: Studio Roosengaarde