CU-Boulder awarded $7.5 million to study gut microbes and sleep

Published: May 5, 2016

A team led by the University of Colorado Boulder has received a $7.5 million grant from the Department of Defense (DoD) to study how gut microbes in humans and animals are affected by stressors like sleep deprivation and circadian clock issues.

DoD officials hope the five-year award will help scientists determine which specific changes in gut bacteria occur in response to sleep disturbances and the misalignment of 24-hour circadian rhythms. The team will be searching for countermeasures as a way to increase stress resilience during U.S. Navy operations, said CU-Boulder Professor Kenneth Wright of the Department of Integrative Physiology, lead investigator on the effort.

Previous human and animal studies, including several led by CU-Boulder, have shown the potential health influence of the more than 10 trillion microbes believed to inhabit each individual human body. Scientists have evidence the collection of gut microbes in humans may influence obesity, anxiety, depression, autism and even cancer.

The effort by the team members is unique because they will be studying mice, rats and humans simultaneously, said Wright, who directs CU-Boulder’s Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory. Wright and his colleagues will be looking to link changes in the types of microbiota to physiological, cognitive and emotional responses.

“We increasingly recognize that the microbiome is important for human health and well-being,” said Wright. “If we can find ways to protect healthy microbiota under sleep-deprived conditions, for example, then the health and performance of military personnel could improve.”

The human part of the study will take place in part Wright’s sleep lab at CU-Boulder, where 50 adult test subjects will spend five consecutive 24-hour days on two separate occasions during a 39-day protocol over the course of the research.

One effect of sleep deprivation can be gastrointestinal stress, said Wright.

“If you are feeling sick you are certainly not going to perform at your best,” he said. “If we can protect against that, for example, we might be able to make military personnel more operations-capable.”

While sleep problems are a common occurrence for recently deployed U.S. military forces, the new study also could help civilian shift workers and others who may be sleep deprived as a result of a disrupted circadian clock, he said.

Another benefit of the study is training the next generation of scientists, said Wright. More than 25 CU-Boulder undergraduates, as well as graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, will participate in the effort.  

The CU-Boulder team members also include Professor Monika Fleshner, who directs the Stress Physiology Laboratory, and Associate Professor Christopher Lowry, who directs the Behavioral Neuroendocrinology Laboratory.

Fleshner and Lowry, who both are faculty members in the integrative physiology department, will be studying the effects of weeks of circadian clock disruption on the microbiota of mice and rats. They also will be testing countermeasure strategies to protect the microbiota as a way to increase stress resilience.

Other research team members include Professors Fred Turek and Martha Vitaterna of Northwestern University, who will be studying the effects of sleep deprivation and countermeasures in lab rodents.

The team also includes Professor Rob Knight and Associate Professor Pieter Dorrestein of the University of California San Diego, who will be attempting to link changes in the types and function of microbiota to changes in physiology and performance. Knight is a former CU-Boulder faculty member.

Contact:
Kenneth Wright, 303-735-6409
kenneth.wright@colorado.edu
Jim Scott, CU-Boulder media relations, 303-492-3114
jim.scott@colorado.edu

woman laying awake in bed next to alarm clock
“We increasingly recognize that the microbiome is important for human health and well-being,” said CU-Boulder Professor Kenneth Wright of the Department of Integrative Physiology. “If we can find ways to protect healthy microbiota under sleep-deprived conditions, for example, then the health and performance of military personnel could improve.”