Most people wind up in one of two camps when it comes to sleep — either you’re an early bird or night owl. But a small group of people somehow can be both, thanks to a gene that determines if you need less sleep. Between 1 and 3 percent of the population are short-sleepers, which means they need less than six hours of sleep a night to function well. Normal adult sleep requirements fall between seven and nine hours a night. And, if you are like me, you still need at least two cups of coffee to wake up in the morning.
These lucky people, dubbed the “sleepless elite” by The Wall Street Journal, have included such notable members as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Edison. These sleepless few have been said to exhibit common personality traits by researchers, who describe them as outgoing, ambitious, and energetic. Being a short-sleeper has also been found to run in families, which would suggest a genetic origin. However, identifying the exact genes responsible has been an arduous task — until now. Researchers at the RIKEN Quantitative Biology Center (QBiC) in Osaka, Japan have pioneered a new, more humane, method for monitoring sleep-cycles via mouse respiration.
This non-invasive apparatus called the Snappy Sleep Stager, allows for more studies to be done and much more economically. "The problem with sleep studies is that they are technically difficult and expensive, which limits the number of mice that can be studied," says Hiroki Ueda, lead researcher of the study which was published in Cell Reports. Thanks to the Snappy Sleep Stager they have identified a new short-sleeper gene, Nr3a.
The Nr3a gene is part of the NMDA receptor family. The NMDA receptor has been linked with different conditions that involve sleep disturbances including depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's disease. The researchers hope to expand the subjects tested through the SSS system. "It could even be applied to monitoring babies or sleepy drivers in cars. These would be good applications," said Kenta Sumiyama, a co-author of the study.
Nr3a isn't the first gene to be associated with short-sleepers. The gene variation hDEC2, was identified in two short-sleepers in 2009. And in a 2014, a study of 100 pairs of twins was the second study to link the DEC2 gene to short sleep length. The carriers of this gene mutation seemed to be able to function normally on less than six hours of sleep per night.
But before you start setting your alarm for 4 a.m., there is a discrepancy between people who think they need less sleep, and people who actually are short-sleepers. One-third of Americans qualify as sleep-deprived, which put them at risk for numerous health issues from high blood pressure, to obesity, stroke, and depression. Of course it would be nice to have more hours in the day to accomplish even more, but cutting back on sleep isn't necessarily the answer. Sleep offers so many benefits— from memory consolidation, to mood and weight regulation. So if you need a few more hours of shut-eye to be productive and alert — be sure to take the time to get them!