Insights into how the parasites that cause the disease are able to communicate with one another could help limit the spread of the infection, researchers at Edinburgh University in collaboration with experts at Dundee University have found.
The findings suggest that new drugs could be designed to disrupt the flow of messages sent between these infectious micro-organisms.
Sleeping sickness - so named because it disrupts sleep patterns - is transmitted by the bite of the tsetse fly, and more than 69 million people in Africa are at risk of infection. Untreated, it can damage the nervous system, leading to coma, organ failure and death.
During infection, the parasites - known as African trypanosomes - multiply in the bloodstream and communicate with each other by releasing a small molecule.When levels of this molecule become high, this acts as a signal for the parasites to stop replicating and to change into a form that can be picked up by biting flies and spread.
A team led by researchers in Edinburgh were able to uncover key components of the parasites' messaging system. They used a technique known as gene silencing to identify those genes that are used to respond to the communication signals and the mechanisms involved.
Professor Keith Matthews, of Edinburgh University's School of Biological Sciences, who led the research, said: "Parasites are adept at communicating with one another to promote their survival in our bodies and ensure their spread - but by manipulating their messages, new ways to combat these infections are likely to emerge."
The research was published in the journal Nature, and funded by the Wellcome Trust.