Living with a Short Sleep Gene: “It’s a Gift” | Health, medicine and fitness
As long as he can remember, Brad Johnson knew he was different.
“I was never normal when it came to sleeping,” Brad told CNN. “Other people, even some of my siblings, slept eight, nine, 10 hours a night. I just couldn’t do it, it was physically impossible. If you paid me a million dollars to sleep eight. hours tonight I couldn’t. “
It didn’t matter what time he went to bed, how little sleep he got or how tired he was from the day’s activities, both as a kid and now at 64, said Brad. .
“I would have five hours and be done. Get up, ready to go, “he said.” I wasn’t groggy, I wasn’t tired, just ready to ride and go.
Brad was not alone. In her large Mormon family of eight, her two older brothers Rand and Paul also woke up early and experienced no adverse effects. In fact, the boys were incredibly productive, driven to wake up and immediately approach life with enthusiasm and good humor.
In the dark, in the wee hours of those mornings, the boys played basketball, did their homework and hobbies, and read whatever they could find.
Brad’s older sisters Janice and Kathy also struggled to stay in bed, as did their father, Vere Johnson.
“I’m pretty sure he got a little sleep, he always got up early in the morning and he had this amazing energy level,” Brad said. “Mom, however, was a normal sleeper. She was seven or eight hours old.”
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The three youngest family members, Todd, Scott and Rob, also had no problem dozing through the night, if their dad or siblings would allow it.
“I kind of remember getting really pissed off every now and then when they turned the lights on on me,” said Todd Johnson, 63. “I like to sleep.”
A special family reunion
The years have passed. Everyone got married, prospered, and had their own large families.
“I only have four children and nine grandchildren, it’s probably one of the smallest families,” said Brad’s older sister Janice Stauffer, 71.
“When we have family reunions every two years in Utah it’s a big crowd, maybe 200 or 250 people can be there.”
It was at one of those biannual gatherings – July 4, 2005 to be exact – that Brad Johnson, his siblings, and some of his large extended family made history. They became one of the first multigenerational families to be tested for what would later be called the “short sleep gene”.
“It was a big deal for sure and the whole family was very kind and very interested in science,” said sleep specialist Chris Jones, professor emeritus of neurology at the University of Utah, who collected family blood and DNA samples.
Brad wrote in his diary that evening: “For most of the day, Dr Chris Jones and his assistant were there chatting with family members and taking blood samples for a study he leads on sleep behavior.
“We have bad sleepers in the family – daddy, Rand, Janice, Paul, me – and he thinks there may be things to learn from the family. I hope our family can provide solutions to the problems of sleep for us and for others. “
The idea that people could sleep for just five hours and bypass the ill effects of sleep deprivation was born of pure “serendipity,” said neurology professor Ying-Hui Fu, who conducts research on the genes of the brain. sleep at the Weill Institute for Neurosciences at the University of California, San Francisco.
Jones and Fu, who were at the University of Utah at the time, were studying advanced sleep phase syndrome, considered a rare type of “morning lark.” These were people who would fall asleep at 7 p.m. – no matter how hard they tried to stay awake – and get up very early, say at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. A gene appeared to be responsible for this unusual circadian rhythm, and the team has published a number of papers on it.
“No one had a clue that our sleep could be genetically regulated until we published the first article,” Fu said.
But not all of their study subjects fit this early-to-bed pattern.
“We went back to this family and we realized that they actually don’t go to bed early, they go to bed like the rest of us,” Fu said. “But they get up very early, which means they only get a few hours of sleep.”
The hunt was on for more people like the Johnsons who fit this pattern. In 2009, the team published their first discovery: There was a mutation in the DEC2 gene that allowed little sleepers to stay awake longer. Since then, the team has discovered two more genes, an ADRB1 mutation and an NPSR1 mutation, which alter neurotransmitters in the human brain to create short sleep.
“I’m rarely, rarely ever tired during the day. I never take a nap,” Brad said. “This gene has allowed me to take on demanding roles and positions. It has given me those extra hours every day so that I can do things that I love, be with people that I love.
“It has been a gift throughout my life,” he added. “A real gift.”
As the research progressed, the team found that there were also positive personality characteristics associated with the ability to sleep successfully for just five hours. Many little sleepers were ambitious, Type A personalities, but also incredibly positive, outgoing and optimistic.
“They weren’t just awake, they were being pushed. It was torture for them to do nothing,” Jones said. “They love to run marathons – a lot of our natural little sleepers have run marathons – including mountain marathons where you go straight ahead. One of them decided he was going to build a violin, and he did. did.
“The motivation they have is physical, but also psychological: ‘I’m going to do it.’ It’s really quite remarkable, ”Jones added.
While these traits don’t apply to all little sleepers, Fu said, about 90 to 95 percent of the people in the studies had these common characteristics, including phenomenal memories.
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