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Racial Differences in Human Circadian Rhythms

Research Team

Charmane I. Eastman, Principal Investigator, RUSH University Medical Center
Louis Fogg, Co-Investigator, RUSH University College of Nursing

Award Period


Funding Source

National Institutes of Health


Misalignment between the circadian timing system and the sleep/wake cycle produces many physiological problems (e.g., insomnia, sleepiness, cognitive decrements, gastrointestinal distress, long-term health risks), which are often associated with night shift work, early morning work shifts, jet lag, and circadian-based sleep disorders like delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD). These health and safety decrements pose a significant threat to personal and public health and safety. Over the course of this grant, we have examined treatments to phase shift (reset) human circadian rhythms in order to eliminate or attenuate circadian misalignment. In doing so, an unexpected racial difference in the size of phase advances (when rhythms are set earlier) and phase delays (rhythms set later) emerged; African Americans ("Blacks") showed larger phase advances and smaller phase delays compared to Caucasians ("Whites"). These data are consistent with our observation that Blacks manifest shorter endogenous free-running circadian periods (tau) compared to Whites. Shorter periods make it easier to advance, but more difficult to delay. These differences in underlying circadian physiology suggest that Blacks and Whites respond differently to real-world situations of circadian misalignment (e.g., shift work or jet lag), depending on the direction that sleep is shifted. We propose the first prospectively designed studies to examine racial differences in circadian phase shifting and in symptom severity associated with circadian misalignment.

There will be two studies. Each study will start with 5 days containing 3 days of an ultradian sleep-wake, light-dark (LD) cycle (4 h forced desynchrony) to determine circadian period. Then, after several baseline days, the sleep schedule will be shifted 9 h earlier (Study 1, Phase Advance) or 9 h later (Study 2, Phase Delay) for three days. In each study, salivary melatonin sampling to determine the dim light melatonin onset (DLMO) will occur before and after the ultradian LD cycle to determine circadian period and before and after the days of misaligned, shifted sleep to determine the magnitude of phase shifts. Cognitive performance, alertness, well-being, and sleep quality and quantity will be examined at baseline and during the days of misaligned sleep to determine symptom severity associated with circadian misalignment. We hypothesize that Blacks will have a shorter circadian period than Whites, will phase advance more than Whites in Study 1 (Phase Advance), and that Whites will phase delay more than Blacks in Study 2 (Phase Delay). We also predict greater decrements of waking function, and sleep quality and quantity in Blacks compared to Whites when the sleep schedule is delayed and greater decrement in Whites compared to Blacks when the sleep schedule is advanced. This project will not only expand our knowledge of basic principles of the human circadian clock, but will also inform treatment of circadian-based sleep disorders, and highlight the need to consider race when determining the optimal treatment strategies.