Genetic Link between Insomnia, Restless Legs Syndrome, Schizophrenia, and Obesity

For the first time, scientists have found a genetic connection between sleep disturbance and medical disorders like schizophrenia, restless legs syndrome, and obesity.

The team of researchers include:

  • Jacqueline Lane, PhD, first author of the study and fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Richa Saxena, PhD, joint senior author and assistant Anesthesia professor at MGH and Harvard Medical School
  • Martin K Rutter, MD, FRCP, joint senior author and lecturer for cardiometabolic medicine at the University of Manchester

Study findings were published in Nature Genetics.

 There were more than 112,000 people analyzed in this research, who were all part of the UK Biobank Study.  This research looked at insomnia, daytime sleepiness, and sleep duration controllers and tried to find the connection with their life histories and health.  Participants were asked to report the degree of insomnia, daytime sleepiness issues, and sleep duration.  They also had gene mapping performed.  Additional data were collected, including height, weight, and past diseases.

Researchers found the areas of the genome responsible for sleep disturbance, especially excessive daytime sleepiness and insomnia.  In addition to this finding, they identified genetic links to other medical problems like schizophrenia, obesity, and restless legs syndrome.

Interestingly, the strongest genetic link for sleep disturbance and insomnia were associated with the gene that has been linked to restless legs syndrome.  RLS is a nervous system condition affecting 1 in 20 people and is characterized by incessantly strong urges to move the legs, especially at night.

Additional findings include a genetic link between schizophrenia and longer sleep durations, as well as higher obesity rates in association with excessive daytime sleepiness.  Research also suggests that insomnia may be directly linked to abnormal glucose metabolism and major depression disorder.

This study marks a major advancement in understanding sleep biology.  The University of Manchester’s Research Innovation Fund and the U.S. National Institutes of Health funded this research.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, one in four British citizens are obese, and the National Health Service treats approximately 280,000 people for schizophrenia at any given time.  Statistics show that 1 in 10 schizophrenia patients will commit suicide within the first 10 years of diagnosis.

Dr. Rutter notes that these findings are significant advancements that will help doctors and scientists understand the biology of sleep and these medical conditions.  The connections between sleep disorders and health issues have been observed for many years, but now this study gives a direct link to genetic predispositions at a molecular level.

The original study, UK Biobank, is focused on the advancement of identifying, preventing, diagnosing, and treating a number of life-threatening illnesses, so this team of researchers is confident their sample from this study will be accurate and an excellent resource for data collection.

Dr. Saxena noted that it is important to remember there are currently no tests to target the molecular structures of conditions that affect sleep.  Right now, all they can use are sedatives, so the hope is that this current research will allow them to find new ways to treat these conditions fundamentally.  Further study is needed, but the current findings offer the key to advancement in understanding one of the most prevalent influencers on our health and behavior:  sleep.


Rachael Herman is a professional writer with an extensive background in medical writing, research, and language development. Her hobbies include hiking in the Rockies, cooking, and reading.


1 thought on “Genetic Link between Insomnia, Restless Legs Syndrome, Schizophrenia, and Obesity

  1. GuQin Reply

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