Every cell in our bodies runs on a 24-hour clock, tuned to the night-day, light-dark cycles that have ruled us since the dawn of humanity. But new research led by U-M Medical School scientists shows that the clock may be broken in the brains of people with depression — even at the level of the gene activity inside their brain cells.
What’s more, the research also reveals a previously unknown daily rhythm to the activity of many genes across many areas of the brain – expanding the sense of how crucial our master clock is.

In a normal brain, the pattern of gene activity at a given time of the day is so distinctive that the authors could use it to accurately estimate the hour of death of the brain donor, suggesting that studying this “stopped clock” could conceivably be useful in forensics. But in severely depressed patients, the circadian clock was so disrupted that a patient’s “day” pattern of gene activity could look like a “night” pattern — and vice versa. The discovery wouldn’t have been possible without donated brains, sophisticated DNA equipment, powerful computers, and funding from the federal government and the private Pritzker Neuropsychiatric Disorders Research Fund.

The two matched closely in healthy people, as shown by the short lines between the two points in the left diagram.

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