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How Do You Sleep? A Sleep Study About the Genetics of Slumber

written by: •edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 8/17/2009

Why can some people feel as fresh as a daisy after just a few hours sleep, whilst others look like they've been dragged through a hedge backwards? The answer may be in your genes, an understanding of which could help with the treatment of sleep disorders.

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    How Do You Sleep?

    So how do you sleep? Do you need eight to ten hours in the sack before you're ready to face the world, or can you survive on five or six? A sleep study by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco has revealed that people who get by on just a few hours and suffer no ill effects (known as short sleep phenotype) may have a rare genetic mutation.

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    Sleep Study

    For this particular sleep study researchers and neurologists studied the sleep patterns and DNA of 1,000 volunteers. Out of this large group two individuals, a mother and a daughter had a mutation on the DEC2 gene that allowed them to sleep for only a few hours. Typically the pair would sleep from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., feeling hale and hearty when they awoke. DEC2 is known to be involved in regulating the body's daily rhythms and what the scientists were able to show was that the gene actually controlled the amount of sleep. It's the first gene to be identified that controls how much sleep people have.

    Having discovered this mutation the scientists' next step was to breed mice with the gene fault to observe how it affected their sleep patterns. Sure enough they did sleep less, and their brain waves showed that they had nothing less than a good night's sleep.

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    Sleep Study and Sleep Disorders

    There are more than 50 million Americans who suffer from some kind of sleep disorder. Many of them just can't sleep and when they do nod off they awake feeling groggy and miserable. Research elsewhere has also shown that people who have trouble sleeping suffer from a variety of health problems. There really does appear to be a physiological basis to getting a good night's sleep which the University of California sleep study has highlighted.

    The next stages in this research will be to look for other genes and mutations that contribute to a good night's sleep and then to understand all the biochemical pathways that allow this to happen. The knowledge could then be used to develop therapeutics that replicate what is going on inside brain so that individuals with sleep problems can sleep for only a few hours and be healthy and feel good in the morning.

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    Ying-Hui Fu et al. The Transcriptional Repressor DEC2 Regulates Sleep Length in Mammals. Science 14 August 2009: Vol. 325. no. 5942, pp. 866 - 870 DOI: 10.1126/science.1174443