Sleep and genetics

Share on PinterestResearch opens up a number of fascinating theoretical possibilities. Getty Images

  • Researchers have identified a genetic mutation shared by people who need less sleep to feel rested.
  • These findings could one be used to develop drugs or therapies to help people sleep better.
  • Bad sleep is linked to a wide variety of problems, so anything that helps people sleep better leads to better health outcomes.

Sleep is a universal experience. But even though we spend about a third of our lives sleeping, the science of why people need more or less sleep is not yet fully understood.

Most people know how much sleep they need to feel rested, along with the hours that are best for bedtime. But the specific reasons for these tendencies are somewhat mysterious.

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) are unraveling some of these mysteries – particularly the role of in how long a person sleeps.

Their study was published this week in the journal Neuron.

The researchers looked at a family with a genomic mutation that made them feel well rested despite sleeping less than 8 hours a night.

Ying-Hui Fu, PhD, geneticist at UCSF and one of the two lead authors of the article, first identified this mutation in natural short sleepers.

“We’re at a stage where we’re trying to put a puzzle together and find the first pieces to create a picture,” Fu told Healthline. “It’s very exciting because that’s how we understand how our sleep is regulated.”

Before doing any research, it is important to understand the two functions of sleep.

The first, circadian function, is relatively well understood.

Circadian rhythms are essentially the body’s internal clock. It determines the times of the the body feels more awake and the times of the the body wants to sleep.

The UCSF study deals with the second system, homeostatic drive.

This works as an internal timer or counter. In short, the longer someone is awake, the greater the pressure to get some sleep.

“The homeostatic drive is very variable,” explains Dr. Jesse Mindel, a neurologist specializing in sleep medicine at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center.

“You will hear people say they need 8 hours of sleep, but the reality is that most people would say they feel rested,” Mindel told Healthline.

Circadian rhythms and homeostatic drive work together to affect sleep patterns, but homeostatic drive is still not well understood.

To learn more, the UCSF researchers built on Fu’s earlier findings and examined a family with a mutated form of the ADRB1 gene.

“These people are really very interesting,” said Dr. Louis Ptáček, a neurologist at UCSF and the newspaper’s other senior writer, told Healthline. “They sleep 4 to 6 hours a night and feel great when they wake up. You sleep much less than the average person during their lifetime. “

This genetic variant that makes people naturally short sleepers is a receptor for a compound called adenosine.

Adenosine receptors are one of the targets that caffeine acts on and are implicated in other biological factors as well.

“When we mapped and cloned this gene, it was pretty exciting because it was the first direct evidence that this gene and this receptor are directly involved in sleep homeostasis, or sleep regulation,” explains Ptáček.

According to Mindel, the research opens up a number of fascinating theoretical possibilities.

“The longer people stay awake, affects their cognitive function, their decision-making, their emotions and their behavior,” he said. “So if you could compromise homeostatic drive, you might not need as much sleep as you do now, which is a very strong theoretical possibility to think about.”

Ptáček admits that more research is needed to better understand these relationships. But he says anything that helps people sleep better is beneficial from a public health perspective.

“We know that chronic sleep deprivation adds to an increased risk of many diseases: cancer of many types, autoimmune diseases, psychiatric diseases, neurodegeneration and so on,” he said.

“If we could develop compounds that help people sleep better and more efficiently, we believe that this could have profound ramifications for improving human health in general – not disease-specific, but through the idea of ​​better health through” sleeping better. ” “Said Ptáček.

“Whether you tend to be a morning lark or a night owl, a short or a late riser, there are many genetic contributions to these traits,” said Ptáček.

Since we have no say in the genetics with which we were born, Ptáček and his colleagues advocate the idea that people should be open to recognize these biological differences without prejudice.

“You can learn a lot from people with different sleep patterns. There are people who need 10 hours a night to feel really rested and to function optimally. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of lazy people hanging around, ”said Ptáček.

“But part of what we need for sleep is genetic. We cannot deny that each of us is different in this regard and we have to respect that, ”he said.

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