X-Men of Sleep: The Mutation You Wish You Had

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X-Men of Sleep

Many of us think of winning the genetic lottery as fitting into our skinny jeans after the holiday season, or being able to tan a beautiful bronze colour during the summer months. But what if I told you there are people who wake up bright-eyed and bushy tailed after fewer than six hours of sleep per night – every night?

A rare genetic mutation discovered by Ying-Hui Fu, PhD, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, allows carriers to function at their best with a sub-standard amount of sleep.

The mutation is on a gene which is linked to regulation of the sleep cycle and sleep quality – hDEC2. Even though it sounds like something from Star Wars, it’s not that futuristic. We may witness the launch of a drug that imitates the hDEC2 mutation within the next few decades.

For now, sleep scientists are gathering more information on how and why the hDEC2 mutation works to enhance quality of sleep. They know that most people require 7-9 hours of sleep per night to function well during the day. If you are consistently sleeping less than 7 hours per night, every night, you are more than likely suffering from sleep deprivation.

Dr. Fu described the impact of too little sleep: “Short term and chronic disruptions in the length of optimal sleep can have serious consequences on cognition, mood and physical health, including cancer and endocrine function.”

The rarity of the hDEC2 mutation is staggering. During studies, the mutation wasn’t found in any of 250 control individuals tested. Dr. Medhi Tafti, associate professor at the Center for Integrative Genomics at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, estimates that only 1% of people who routinely sleep fewer hours have the genetic mutation.

Night owls take heed –unless you’re one of Sleep’s Chosen Ones, you need to catch more zees.

Even though the discovery of the hDEC2 mutation is promising, the road to finding a cure for sleep disorders is a long one. Genetic engineering of mice and fruit flies proves the connection between the hDEC2 mutation and the amount of sleep required for optimal health. Exactly how the mutation works, and if it’s the only factor involved, is still being examined.

In your lifetime, there may be a drug that helps you add more hours to your day. You may have more energy to put into your work, spend time with your family (or watch all the shows recorded on your PVR and eat an entire carton of ice-cream while wearing your sweatpants). If the general population had access to such a wonder-drug, would it really change the face of human behaviour? I’m not so sure.

Until then, take this advice: the next time you’re worrying about the items remaining on your to-do list at 10 pm, get one of your mutant friends to do them for you. After all, they still have a few waking hours to spare.

This Guest Post was contributed by Colleen Davis — an enthusiastic (non-mutated) sleeper from Victoria, Canada.

photo credit: Cia de Foto via photopin cc

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