Could brain protein help people 'sleep off' the flu?

Tuesday January 13 2015

"Scientists…believe that a nasal spray could be produced which boosts a protein so sufferers could sleep off the flu," The Daily Telegraph reports.

As yet, the research has been confined to assessing the role of one protein – in mice.

The paper reports on complex research in mice on a protein called AcPb, which researchers thought could be playing a role in regulating normal sleep and the body's response to flu infection.

They found mice genetically engineered to lack the protein could not catch up on sleep as well after sleep deprivation.

Also, while normal mice slept more if they were infected with an adapted flu virus, the mice lacking AcPb slept less. They also showed worse signs of the flu and were more likely to die as a result of the infection.

The researchers have shown if you remove the AcPb protein, mice don't fight the flu virus as well. This does not necessarily mean giving mice more of the protein would make them fight it better.

While the news suggests there may be a possibility of an effective flu treatment, we are a long way off knowing whether this is the case. 

Differences between the species may mean the normal role of the protein may not be exactly the same in humans. We also don't know if giving humans (or indeed mice) extra doses of the protein would be safe or effective.

When it comes to flu, prevention is better than (the non-existent) cure. Check to see if you need the flu jab, and always maintain good hygiene if you're unwell.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the University of Washington and Washington State University Spokane. It was funded by the US National Institutes of Health.

It was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.

The Telegraph overemphasises the implications of this animal research for humans. This in part seems to be prompted by the scientists envisaging a "nasal spray" of the protein to treat humans – something that has not been developed or tested in this study.

The Telegraph says that, "The protein will also fight the H1N1 bird flu strain, which swept across the world in the 2009 pandemic". This mouse research did use an adapted strain of H1N1 flu virus – and it was an H1N1 flu virus that caused so-called "swine flu" (not bird flu).

But this is very early-stage research, and we have no idea whether it will result in useful treatments for seasonal flu, let alone any future potential flu pandemic.

What kind of research was this?

This was an animal study in mice, looking at the role of a protein called AcPb on sleep and the body's response to the flu virus.

The researchers wanted to test what role the AcPb protein plays in a pathway (a chain of biochemical events) that affects how our bodies regulate our sleep while we are well and during infection. AcPb is primarily found in the brain.

Animal experiments such as these are used when researchers could not carry out similar studies in humans because of ethical and safety concerns.

Other animals are similar enough to humans to help researchers get an insight into how our bodies work. But there are differences between different species, and not all findings in rats or mice will be representative of what happens in humans.

Researchers therefore ideally need to go on to test their hypotheses from animal studies in humans.

What did the research involve?

The researchers looked at how mice genetically engineered to lack the AcPb protein differed from normal mice.

They tested their responses to sleep deprivation at different time points, and also to a form of the human H1N1 flu virus adapted to infect mice.

What were the basic results?

When normal mice were deprived of sleep at any time, they "caught up" on that sleep later. Mice genetically engineered to lack the AcPb protein (AcPb "knockout" mice) were less able to catch up on sleep after sleep deprivation.

Levels of the AcPb protein naturally fluctuate during the day, and the extent to which the AcPb knockout mice were able to catch up on sleep depended on exactly where in this fluctuation cycle they were.

When exposed to the flu virus, normal mice slept more than they normally did, but AcPb knockout mice slept less than they normally would, and also less than normal mice.

The knockout mice also suffered from the effects of the flu on their body temperature and activity, and were more likely than normal mice to die after exposure to the flu virus.

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded the AcPb protein plays a role in regulating sleep and the body's defences against viral attack.


This complex study suggests the AcPb protein is playing a role in regulating normal sleep and the response to flu infection in mice.

At this stage, the implications of this research for humans are unclear, as differences between the species may mean the results would not be exactly the same in humans.

While The Telegraph suggests this "could finally lead to an effective treatment for the [flu], which until now has eluded experts", we are a long way off knowing whether this is the case.

What the researchers have shown – in mice – is if you remove this protein, mice don't fight the virus as well. This does not necessarily mean giving mice more of the protein would make them fight it better. It also doesn't mean giving more of the protein wouldn't have side effects.

Overall, this research is at a very early stage, with much more animal research needed before we know if we are closer to a flu treatment.

There is currently no cure for the flu, so the most effective weapon against it is prevention, such as good basic hygiene procedures and the flu jab.

The jab is recommended for people who are at risk of developing serious complications if they catch the flu, such as the over 65s, pregnant women, and people with a serious long-term illness.

Analysis by Bazian
Edited by NHS Choices