For those among us who find it challenging to drift off into slumber, you have probably searched far and wide for how to sleep better. A team of researchers suggests that certain genes enable some individuals to get a better quality night’s sleep on a shorter duration than the majority of people.
Traditionally, longer duration was the primary advice for how to sleep better, with guidelines promoting around eight hours of sleep per night for adults. However, new research from UC San Francisco has found that some people have genes that allow them to experience the benefits of a full night’s sleep in an efficient time window, meaning they can feel energised on only four to six hours of sleep.
Moreover, the study, which is published in iScience, suggests that these “elite sleepers” may have psychological resilience and resistance to neurodegenerative conditions, meaning the genes may provide a way to stop neurological diseases.
Neurologist Louis Ptacek, MD, one of the senior authors on the study, commented: “There’s a dogma in the field that everyone needs eight hours of sleep, but our work to date confirms that the amount of sleep people need differs based on genetics. Think of it as analogous to height; there’s no perfect amount of height, each person is different. We’ve shown that the case is similar for sleep.”
The key to better sleep
For over a decade, the research team has analysed people with Familial Natural Short Sleep (FNSS), a condition where people can function on and have a preference for between four and six hours of sleep per night. The researchers have demonstrated that FNNS runs in the family and have identified five genes across the genome that play a significant role in enabling better sleep and believe there are still many FNNS genes still to discover.
This novel study investigated the theory that elite sleep can protect against neurodegenerative disease, a hypothesis that contrasts other research that suggests that a lack of sleep can accelerate neurodegeneration. However, in people with FNNS, the brain accomplishes sleep tasks in a shorter time, meaning that less time spent efficiently sleeping may not equate to a lack of sleep.
Protection from neurodegenerative diseases
For their investigation, the team employed mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease due to the condition being so prevalent. The researchers bred mice with both the short-sleep gene and genes that predisposed them to Alzheimer’s, finding that their brains developed much less of the hallmark aggregates associated with dementia. To solidify these results, they repeated the experiment using mice with a different short-sleep gene and another dementia gene, observing similar results.
The team stated that the efficient sleep genes could provide protection from a range of brain diseases and educating people on how to sleep better could mitigate disease progression across a whole spectrum of conditions.
Ying-Hui Fu, PhD, a co-senior author of the members of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, commented: “Sleep problems are common in all diseases of the brain. This makes sense because sleep is a complex activity. Many parts of your brain have to work together for you to fall asleep and to wake up. When these parts of the brain are damaged, it makes it harder to sleep or get quality sleep.”
Understanding the biological underpinnings of how to sleep better could devise drugs that will help alleviate sleep disorders. Moreover, improving sleep in healthy people may enhance their physical and mental well-being and overall quality of life. However, obtaining a comprehensive understanding of the various genes at play is arduous. There is still much work to do, with the team likening it to putting together a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle.
“Every mutation we find is another piece,” said Ptacek. “Right now, we’re working on the edges and the corners to get to that place where it’s easier to put the pieces together and where the picture really starts to emerge. ”
Nevertheless, some of the genes they have already discovered show promise, with one potentially able to be targeted with existing drugs that might be repurposed. They are hopeful that within the next decade, they will have developed new methods for how to sleep better, designing novel treatments that allow people with brain disorders to get a better night’s rest.
Fu concluded: “This work opens the door to a new understanding of how to delay and possibly prevent a lot of diseases. This work opens the door to a new understanding of how to delay and possibly prevent a lot of diseases.”