A husband-and-wife research team at the University of California-San Francisco is studying why some people are "better" sleepers than others—and whether that trait can be replicated with a medication targeted at manipulating the body's circadian clock, Sumathi Reddy writes in the Wall Street Journal.
Specifically, Ying-Hui Fu is researching "short-sleepers," a small group of people—less than 1% of Americans—who require only very short amounts of sleep to feel fully refreshed. Meanwhile, her husband Louis Ptácek is studying the 3% of people who naturally go to bed early and wake early.
Short-sleepers: More optimistic, higher pain threshold
Fu has enlisted short-sleepers nationwide that submit questionnaires, blood samples, and saliva samples. Fu is sequencing the entire genome of each participant to identify any genetic mutations that might make them need less sleep than the average person. So far, Fu has created a database of more than 50 families of short-sleepers.
Fu has found that the short-sleepers share non-sleep characteristics: They generally have a high threshold for pain and an optimistic attitude. "The natural, short-sleeper—these people are very optimistic, very energetic, they are go-getters," she says.
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Moreover, Fu has found that the short-sleepers share a mutation in the gene Dec2, and she is close to pinpointing two other mutations in other genes. Fu says that identifying all the genes shared by short-sleepers could allow her to develop a drug that mimics their behavior over the next decade.
"If we can identify the pathways that can regulate our sleep duration then maybe someday we can come up with something better than caffeine," she says.
Morning larks: Early to bed, early to rise
Meanwhile, Ptácek has been developing drugs based on genetic research of extreme morning larks, or people who tend to fall asleep around 8:30 p.m. and wake before 5:30 a.m. Ptácek was able to identify a gene mutation such people share: the gene Per2, which plays a major role in regulating circadian rhythms.
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Previous research has found that disrupting such rhythms—by working the night shift or staying up late looking at a cell phone or computer screen—increases the risk of cancer, obesity, and other chronic diseases. Developing a drug that could manipulate the body's internal clock could help treat jet lag and even improve the curative powers of certain cancer treatments, according to Ptácek.
Poor sleep may make cancer grow more quickly
"Being able to shift the clock, I think, will have profound implications for many different things, from night-shift work to driving at night to conducting chemotherapy," he says (Reddy, Wall Street Journal, 6/9).
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