I Wish I Were a Mutant…

Oh man–talk about winning the genetic lottery: science has discovered a genetic mutation in some human beings that allows them to function on far less sleep than average.

Researchers have found a genetic mutation in two people who need a mere 6 hours of sleep a night. The finding, published in the Friday issue of Science, marks the first time scientists have identified a genetic mutation that relates to sleep duration in any animal or human. The discovery could open the door to understanding human sleep patterns and lead to treatments for insomnia and other sleep disorders.

Although the mutation has been identified in only two people, the power of the research stems from the fact that the shortened sleep effect was replicated in mouse and fruit-fly studies. As a result, the research now gives scientists a clearer sense of where to look for genetic traits linked to sleep patterns.

The gene mutation was found by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, who were conducting DNA screening on several hundred blood samples from people who had taken part in sleep studies.

The scientists were searching the samples for variations in several genes thought to be related to the sleep cycle. In what amounts to finding a needle in a haystack, they spotted two DNA samples with abnormal copies of a gene called DEC2, which is known to affect circadian rhythms. They then worked back to find out who provided the samples and found a mother and daughter who were naturally short sleepers. The women routinely function on about 6 hours of sleep a night; the average person needs 8 to 8.5 hours of sleep.

When scientists bred mice with the same mutation, the animals slept less and recovered quicker from periods of sleep deprivation compared with regular mice.

What distinguishes the two women in the study and other naturally short sleepers is that they go to bed at a normal time and wake up early without an alarm. The two women, one in her 70s and the other in her 40s, go to bed around 10 or 10:30 at night and wake up alert and energized around 4 or 4:30 in the morning.

Our bodies, we’re always told, need 8 to 8.5 hours of sleep a night. Could you imagine how much you could get done in a day if you woke up rested and alert at 4:30am every day? I’d have like 3 extra hours a day to write before I had to do anything else…

The genetic mutation appears to be rare, though. Out of 70 families with known sleep problems studied at the university, only one family carried the mutation. The study suggests fewer than 5 percent of people appeared to be naturally short sleepers.

One of the researchers on the study said her “fantasy” was that the finding might eventually lead to a safe treatment for people who wanted or needed more awake hours and were looking for a way to get by on less sleep without harming their health.

How awesome would that be? Because as it is, I think I suffer from the opposite genetic trait: I think I’m in the 5 percent of people who need like 10 hours a night to function and feel human in the morning…

– S.