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Ever wondered why you wake up in the morning--even when the alarm clock isn't ringing? Researchers have identified a new component of the biological clock, a gene responsible for starting the clock from its restful state every morning.

The biological clock ramps up our metabolism early each day, initiating important functions that tell our bodies that it's time to rise and shine. Discovery of this new gene which starts our clocks everyday may help explain the genetic underpinnings of sleeplessness, aging and even illnesses such as cancer and diabetes--and maybe even find a cure for them.

Researcher Satchidananda Panda says, "The body is essentially a collection of clocks. We roughly knew what mechanism told the clock to wind down at night, but we didn't know what activated us again in the morning. Now that we've found it, we can explore more deeply how our biological clocks malfunction as we get older and develop chronic illness."

Now that scientists understand why we wake each day, they can explore the role of this gene in sleep disorders and chronic diseases, possibly using it as a target for new drugs. With age, for instance, the biological clock seems to decline, often causing older people to suffer from difficulty sleeping. There is also strong evidence that shift workers, such as nurses and emergency personnel, who work long shifts that break them out of the normal 24-hour cycle of waking and sleeping, are at much higher risk for certain diseases.

Panda says, "So much of what it means to be healthy and youthful comes down to a good night's sleep. Now we have a whole new avenue to explore why some people's circadian rhythms are off and to perhaps find new ways to help them."

And why do we yawn when we're tired? A new theory proposed by Gary Hack and Andrew Gallup suggests that yawning cools the brain and the sinuses. The walls of the human sinus flex during yawning like a bellows, which in turn facilitates brain cooling (maybe it's hard to sleep with a hot brain?) The researchers say, “The brain is exquisitely sensitive to temperature changes and therefore must be protected from overheating. Brains, like computers, operate best when they are cool." 

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