Want to beat jet lag? Here’s the VIP treatment

Spring holidays are nearly upon us. Anyone whose travel plans include a long-haul flight might appreciate the results from a recent paper by Professor Erik Herzog and colleagues in the Department of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis. Published last November in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA), this work has implications on ways to change signaling pathways in the brain to better respond to jet lag associated with traveling across time zones. I hope this post will be the first of a series of discussions about current scientific results with the researchers that performed the experiments.

Trans-meridian travel disrupts entrainment or synchrony of the internal circadian clock with the external environment. Imagine flying from New York to London, where you are now faced with dawn arriving 5 hours earlier than your brain expects. In this case, you must advance your internal clock to fall in line with local time. This does not happen instantly, as anyone who has suffered from jet lag can attest to. But new results from the Herzog lab suggest that there may be a way to make these shifts happen faster. Surprisingly, it involves desynchronizing your internal clock before you try to shift it.

Vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP) is a neuropeptide released by some circadian clock cells in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the brain. Previous work from the Herzog lab and others suggested that low concentrations of VIP allow neighboring SCN cells to coordinate their timing with each other. In their new paper, much higher concentrations of VIP were used on brain tissue with an unexpected outcome – overall synchrony between cells decreased. Imagine an orchestra where all of the players were counting at their own pace, some faster and some slower, so that they were each playing at a different time than their neighbors. This, which the researchers called phase tumbling, is what happens to SCN neurons in the brain under high concentrations of VIP. When they observed the behavior of individual cells, Herzog and colleagues found that their phases were now widely scattered in a distribution of different timings. Using a mathematical model, the researchers were able to make a prediction that this noisy, uncoordinated orchestra of cells might be better at readjusting to a new, shifted time.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers looked for what happens when they jet lag mice treated with high concentrations of VIP. To monitor behavioral rhythms, individual mice are housed in a cage with a running wheel within a larger chamber. Mice love running on this wheel – because they’re nocturnal, mice will get up and run on the wheel for miles every night. Every revolution is counted by an electrical switch wired to a computer, so researchers can see the daily rest and activity cycles of each animal. To simulate jet lag, the researchers simply switched the timing of when the lights came on in the “morning” to be 8 hours earlier. The mice “flew” to London overnight! Mice that had received a high concentration of VIP injected directly into their SCN prior to the light shift were able to adjust to the new time within 4 days. The control animals took more than twice as long, on average 9 days to completely shift. By making the neurons in the brain less coordinated with each other, VIP can help speed up the entrainment of our internal clock necessary to alleviate the symptoms of jet lag.

I spoke with Professor Herzog about what advice he would give to someone who was planning a trip where they would have to shift their circadian clock and beat jet lag. Here’s what he had to say about the differences between flying east versus west.


And while he doesn’t expect that we’re going to be jabbing and injecting VIP into our brains any time soon, Professor Herzog did have some ideas about whether a treatment using the neuropeptide would one day be available to the general public.


Finally, as we await more research in ways to help jet lag, there is one stop gap – the placebo effect!


Full disclosure: I am a proud, card-carrying member of Herzog Nation, completing my Ph.D. training in the lab from 2005 to 2010. I studied the ability of single neurons from the brain’s circadian clock to keep time in a dish without other cells. I also drank a lot of Schlafly beer.

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