Sleep is a complex physiological process and still remains one of the great mysteries of science. Over the past 10 y, genetic research has provided a new avenue to address the regulation and function of sleep. Gene loci that contribute quantitatively to sleep characteristics and variability have already been identified. However, up to now, a genetic basis has been established only for a few sleep disorders. Little is yet known about the genetic background of insomnia, one of the most common sleep disorders. According to the conceptualisation of the 3P model of insomnia, predisposing, precipitating and perpetuating factors contribute to the development and maintenance of insomnia. Growing evidence from studies of predisposing factors suggests a certain degree of heritability for insomnia and for a reactivity of sleep patterns to stressful events, explaining the emergence of insomnia in response to stressful life events. While a genetic susceptibility may modulate the impact of stress on the brain, this finding does not provide us with a complete understanding of the capacity of stress to produce long-lasting perturbations of brain and behaviour. Epigenetic gene-environment interactions have been identified just recently and may provide a more complex understanding of the genetic control of sleep and its disorders. It was recently hypothesised that stress-response-related brain plasticity might be epigenetically controlled and, moreover, several epigenetic mechanisms have been assumed to be involved in the regulation of sleep. Hence, it might be postulated that insomnia may be influenced by an epigenetic control process of both sleep mechanisms and stress-response-related gene-environment interactions having an impact on brain plasticity. This paper reviews the evidence for the genetic basis of insomnia and recent theories about epigenetic mechanisms involved in both sleep regulation and brain-stress response, leading to the hypothesis of an involvement of epigenetic mechanisms in the development and maintenance of insomnia.
Keywords: Brain; Epigenetic; Genes; Insomnia; Stress.
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