Researchers at the University of California San Francisco have
discovered a gene that might explain why some people need less sleep
than others. Experts say the finding
opens the door into the study of sleep.
Sleep is an essential process. Laboratory animals that are deprived of it for prolonged periods of time eventually die.
Nonetheless, Ying-Hui Fu with the University of California San Francisco says little is known about this basic human need.
do not know how our sleep is regulated," she said. "We do not know why
some people need more sleep; why some people need less sleep; why most
of us need eight hours of sleep; why, when we do not sleep, we do not
function very well. We just do not know much about sleep at all."
says sleep can be induced in humans when they drink alcoholic beverages
or take sleeping pills. But she says no specific gene had been
discovered that appeared to be involved in regulating sleep - until now.
research team stumbled across the sleep gene while looking for a
molecular mechanism underlying circadian rhythms - a natural internal
clock that regulates the shift between sleep and wakefulness during a
In the course of their studies, Fu says
researchers identified a genetic mutation in people who go to bed at a
normal time but sleep only for about six hours, feeling as refreshed
when they wake up as those who appear to need eight hours or more of
"We have these human subjects that carry this mutation and they look fine," she said.
genetically engineered mice to carry the mutation, and compared their
sleep cycles and brain activity to rodents that did not have the
genetic abnormality. They found that those with the gene slept less
and were awake for longer periods of time. Mice with the mutation also
were more energetic than normal mice, after being deprived of sleep.
Although the gene mutation is thought to be extremely rare, Fu says it is a significant find for sleep researchers.
essentially do not know anything about how sleep is regulated," she
said. "But this gene is kind of opening a door for us to say, 'Now we
have this gene and we know it affects human sleep quantity.'"
Fu adds that the gene might be related to other medical conditions.
is too early for me to make any conclusion because now that we have
this mouse model, we can use a mouse to test whether mice that carry
this mutation have metabolic problem[s] or they have psychiatric
problem[s] or they have psychological problem[s]. We can start going
into this field," she said.
Fu and her colleagues will also
examine whether the gene controls the amount of sleep a person needs as
well as the drive to fall asleep.
It is thought that sleep is
also controlled by homeostasis, an internal process that keeps track of
how much sleep people need and makes them feel tired so they will go to
The study on the sleep gene is published this week in the journal Science.