Alertness CRC discovers molecules linked to sleep loss


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Biomarkers that predict sleep loss with high accuracy have been identified by the Alertness CRC with the help of Metabolomics Australia.

The outcome

Biological molecules associated with sleep loss have been identified by researchers from the Cooperative Research Centre for Alertness, Safety and Productivity (Alertness CRC) in collaboration with Metabolomics Australia. The molecules are covered by a provisional patent application and could be used to develop a roadside test for sleepiness.

The need

Inadequate sleep can cause fatigue and slower reaction times. It can also impair attention, concentration, memory and reasoning. In Australia, an estimated 7.4 million adults experienced inadequate sleep in 2016–2017. This carried an estimated total cost – in terms of lost productivity and wellbeing, and treatment and other financial costs – of $A66 billion. Despite its prevalence and impact, there is currently no reliable way to diagnose sleepiness.

Identifying biomarkers of sleep loss is the first step in developing a test for sleepiness. Such a test could benefit many industries that depend on people staying alert over extended periods or during times when sleep is disrupted. Examples include transportation, logistics, mining, and other types of shift work.

A test for sleepiness could also be used to predict driving impairment at the roadside or even before someone gets behind the wheel. As many as one-fifth of road accidents in Australia are thought to be related to fatigue.

The solution

Researchers at the Alertness CRC approached Metabolomics Australia for help to identify biomarkers of sleep loss. Metabolomics is the study of the small molecules involved in metabolism – the chemical processes that sustain life. The researchers reasoned that metabolites, the substances produced during metabolism, might represent reliable biomarkers of sleep loss.

The two teams spent about a year scoping the project. Then they ran an experiment in which they kept 23 participants awake for 40 hours. The researchers took samples of the participants’ blood every two hours.

Metabolomics Australia staff advised the researchers on the best way to collect and prepare samples for metabolomic analysis. The staff analysed more than 400 blood samples and found around 1000 different metabolites. To do this, they used a technique called liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (LC-MS).

Using a series of systematic decisions, the researchers narrowed down the 1000 metabolites. They found a smaller group of metabolites that together predict sleep loss with high accuracy. They also developed an algorithm to weight each metabolite according to its importance in predicting the sleep state.

The Alertness CRC filed a provisional patent application covering the number and weighted combination of metabolites. The researchers are now working with Metabolomics Australia staff to identify the individual molecules.

The platform

Metabolomics Australia offers high-throughput detection and analysis of biological samples – from humans, other animals, plants, and the environment. The staff also provide the expert advice to collect and analyse samples, design studies and fully exploit the results.

Metabolomics Australia is a member of Bioplatforms Australia. The Victorian node of Metabolomics Australia – one of only four nodes nationwide – is based at the University of Melbourne’s Bio21 Molecular Science and Biotechnology Institute.

Techniques used in this project include:

  • liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry (LC-MS). Liquid chromatography physically separates the components in a fluid. Mass spectrometry identifies the mass and charge of each component, enabling it to be identified.


Cooperative Research Centre for Alertness, Safety and Productivity (Alertness CRC)


Grant LK et al (2019) Circadian and wake-dependent changes in human plasma polar metabolites during prolonged wakefulness: A preliminary analysis. Scientific Reports 9(1): 4428. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-40353-8


AU2019901214, filed 9 April 2019

Image: Metabolomics Australia

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Banner image: Two men in a lab wearing white lab coats. One man is using a computer, the other is checking a machine. Image byMetabolomics Australia

First published on 29 April 2020.

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