Scientists have discovered the first gene involved in regulating the optimal length of human sleep, offering a window into a key aspect of slumber, an enigmatic phenomenon that is critical to human physical and mental health.
The team, reporting in the Aug. 14, 2009 issue of Science, identified a mutated gene that allows two members of an extended family to thrive on six hours of sleep a day rather than the eight to eight-and-a-half hours that studies have shown humans need over time to maintain optimal health. Working from this discovery, the scientists genetically engineered mice and fruit flies to express the mutated gene and study its impact.
While most Americans obtain less than eight hours of sleep a night (the average on non-work days is 7.4 hours), and some may feel they succeed with less when engaged in exhilarating work, domestic life or recreation, scientific evidence indicates that, over time, the body suffers from this regimen, the researchers say.
"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," says the senior author of the study, Ying-Hui Fu, PhD, UCSF professor of neurology. However, teasing out this impact can be challenging, she says, given access to such stimuli as coffee and chocolate.
The finding, she says, offers an opportunity to unravel the regulatory mechanism of sleep. While the mutation may be rare, it could offer a probe more generally into the regulatory mechanisms of sleep quality and quantity. Understanding these mechanisms could lead to interventions to alleviate pathologies associated with sleep disturbance.
Sleep remains a relatively inscrutable biological phenomenon. Scientists know that it is regulated in large part by two processes: 1) circadian rhythms -- genetic, biochemical and physiological mechanisms that wax and wane during a 24 hour
|Contact: Jennifer O'Brien|
University of California - San Francisco