SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — The majority of us rely on alarm clocks or an extra cup of coffee to get through the day, but researchers at UCSF discovered a gene mutation that allows a rare group of people to function on less sleep.
“We actually stumbled upon this gene serendipitously,” said UCSF neuroscience professor Dr. Ying-Hui Fu. “We were not really looking for a gene that caused people to need less sleep or sleep less.”
The gene mutation is called DEC2. Fu said the mutation allows people to sleep four to six hours a night and be fully functional during the day. Health officials currently recommend people get at least eight hours of sleep a night.
“Whatever our brain needs to do in our eight hours for you and me, it can be done for four hours in these people,” Fu said. She called this rare group of people “efficient sleepers.”
Dr. Fu said efficient sleepers have very unique characteristics.
“In addition to sleeping four to six hours [a night] their whole life they are very energetic, very optimistic. They’re always optimistic and go-go-go.” Fu also noted it’s common for the energetic sleepers to have more than one job, not because they need the money, but because these efficient sleepers are very active.
Fu added, the mutation runs in the family but is very rare, occurring in less than one percent of people.
Abby Ross, one of UCSF’s sleep study participants is one of few born to be awake.
“No matter if I get two, three, four hours I always feel energetic and awake,” Ross said. “If I was up at 3 o’clock in the morning I would kind of try to go back sleep and it never worked.”
Ross said most of her life she grew up thinking she was different from others. During her undergraduate years at Northwestern she often found herself studying while others slept.
“That was like gold. Everybody was asleep. Nobody could bother me,” she said, “but I didn’t look at it like a gift.”
Ross learned about the UCSF study last year and offered to participate. After the results came in, she learned her family was part of this rare group.
“It’s called a mutation and that could be a little bit scary,” Ross said.
The news was scary at first for Ross, but she said it later gave her understanding and relief.
“My day is longer than most people, I can get more things done. I just love this,” said Ross. “If I had a penny for every person that’s ever said to me, ‘I wish we could bottle this’ that’s what they’re [UCSF] doing now.”
Dr. Fu and her team replicated the DEC2 gene effects in mice. Her goal is to translate the knowledge from her research into a drug or supplement for humans but Dr. Fu cautions that goal is still decades away.
“I think in the long run some day that’s a real possibility because if we can understand what makes these people sleep more efficient therefore we can come up with some idea about how to safely regulate our sleep more efficiently.”
For now, experts like Dr. Clete Kushida at Stanford’s Sleep Medical Center says the first step for the rest of us is just to get enough sleep.
“I would argue that that’s always good to have more efficient sleep but to try and stay above the seven hours or more,” Kushida said.
According to the CDC, inefficient sleep is a public epidemic.
Fu said, “I think that’s definitely one of the biggest problem we are facing but I think a lot of people are not realizing how important sleep is us.” Fu wants to solve this problem with her study.
“This is my passion I want to educate people to help them understand this is something simple you can do. All you need to do is pay attention to your sleep,” she said.
Dr. Fu and her team are working to prove the existence of more mutations with the same effect as DEC2.