SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — It’s an age-old belief when it comes to sleep and health: Any less than seven to eight hours of sleep each night is a recipe for next day lethargy, irritability, and forgetfulness. Now, however, a new study finds certain “elite sleepers” really don’t need as much sleep as other people. Researchers from the University of California-San Francisco say these individuals can function at a high-level with just four to six hours of sleep.
Moreover, study authors collected evidence suggesting that “elite sleepers” are more capable on a neurological level of defending against any number of neurodegenerative conditions and neurological disease. These individuals also display stronger “psychological resilience” than others.
Why do certain people’s bodies and brains require less sleep?
In one word, genetics.
“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,” says senior study author and neurologist Louis Ptacek, MD in a university release. “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.”
For over a decade, Dr. Ptacek and co-senior study author Ying-Hui Fu, PhD have been analyzing and studying people with Familial Natural Short Sleep (FNSS), or the ability to remain “peppy” and alert after just a few hours of sleep each night. It’s important to note that most people with FNSS also prefer to sleep for shorter periods of time than others — it’s feels right for them to sleep less.
Over the past 10 years, the research team has confirmed that FNSS runs in families. More specifically, scientists have identified five distinct genes across the genome with a connection to FNSS. However, study authors say there are many more FNSS genes they still need to uncover.
This latest research project’s main goal was to test if “elite sleep” shields against neurodegenerative disease. That hypothesis directly contradicts what most doctors and scientists believe when it comes to sleep and cognitive decline. The medical consensus generally states that the less one sleeps, the more likely that person is to eventually develop a neurodegenerative condition. Sleep is an important time for the brain. While we snooze, our minds get rid on unneeded toxins and strengthens recently formed memories.
‘Elite sleep’ genes may stave off dementia
The difference for people with FNSS, study authors explain, is that their brains are capable of getting all that neurological work done in a much shorter period of time. In other words, FNSS sleep is more efficient.
Researchers chose to examine mice with Alzheimer’s disease because it is such a common form of dementia. They bred mice with both a short-sleep gene and genes that predisposed the rodents to Alzheimer’s. Sure enough, the brains of those mice displayed much lower levels of “hallmark aggregates associated with dementia.”
To further confirm those results, study authors duplicated the experiment using mice featuring a different elite sleep gene and a different dementia gene. The results, however, were quite similar to the first experiment.
With all of these findings in mind, the researchers theorize that elite sleepers likely enjoy robust protection against other brain conditions as well. All of this points to a potentially major shift in the way modern science and medicine view sleep and how to improve it. Instead of focusing on “getting in eight hours” each night, perhaps more attention should shift towards determining how to improve the efficiency of someone’s sleep regardless of the length.
“Sleep problems are common in all diseases of the brain,” Dr. Fu says. “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.”
Scientists building a genetic ‘jigsaw puzzle’
This work is no doubt important and may one day lead to the identification of new drugs capable of fighting off health issues associated with sleep problems. In a more general sense, everyone can benefit from more efficient sleep. Unfortunately, there is still a long scientific road ahead. Study authors explain finding all of the genes linked to elite sleep is going to take a “long game.” They compare this process to putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
“Every mutation we find is another piece,” Dr. Ptacek explains. “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.“
On a more optimistic note, real tangible progress continues to be achieved. Some of the relevant genes already identified show serious promise. Researchers confirm one in particular can be targeted with existing drugs that may be repurposed. The research team’s long-term goal over the next decade is to assist in the development of new treatments that will help people with brain disorders get better sleep.
“This work opens the door to a new understanding of how to delay and possibly prevent a lot of diseases,” Fu concludes. “Our goal really is to help everyone live healthier and longer through getting optimum sleep.”
The study is published in iScience.