The Family with The Short Sleep Gene

short sleep gene
The Johnson Family. Back row: Kathy, Paul, Rand, Rob, Todd and Janice. Front row: Brad, Vere, Winnie, Scott. Credit: Brad Johnson

The Johnson Family has become one of the first multi-generational families part of a research examining the ‘short sleep gene’.

Although the recommended sleep duration is 7 to 9 hours for adults, some people spend way less time resting their eyes. Thus, often suffering from the ill effects of sleep deprivation. However, there’s a certain group who only sleep 5 hours a night without suffering any of the consequences. According to scientists, these people carry a rare ‘short sleep gene’.

Nobody had any idea that our sleep actually can be regulated by genetics until we published the first paper

Professor Ying-Hui Fu, study author

In 2009, researchers at the University of Utah discovered the gene responsible for short sleep: mutation of the gene DEC2. Normally, DEC2 codes for a protein that switches off the expression of the gene for a hormone known to regulate wakefulness. Mutation turns on the expression of this gene and causes the production of the hormone. Thus, resulting in a shorter sleep cycle and people staying awake longer. 

Later on, the researchers focused their attention to families with short sleepers. Moreover, the shortened sleep seemed to extend over generations. Their investigation revealed mutations in two more genes: NPSR1 and ADRB1. Both mutations altered levels of brain neurotransmitters that promoted wakefulness.

The Johnson Family

One particular family, the Johnson Family, was at the center of their study. In an interview with CNN, Brad Johnson described how his and his siblings would often wake up early in the morning while the rest of the world slept. Except for three younger siblings and his mother, all of Brad’s family members suffered the same fate. However, none ever suffered any ill effects. Instead, they were extremely productive and full of energy. They’d often spend those extra hours reading, doing their homework, and playing basketball.

We have some bad sleepers in the family — Dad, Rand, Janice, Paul, me — and he thinks there may be some things to learn from the family. I hope our family can lead to some solutions to sleep issues for us and others.

Brad Johnson

Further investigation revealed that a majority of short sleepers are ambitious individuals who, despite the limited sleep, often spent their time running marathons. Moreover, they possessed remarkable personalities.

Researchers believe that studying these individuals can help them develop a treatment for sleep disorders.

Source: CNN


He, Ying et al. “The transcriptional repressor DEC2 regulates sleep length in mammals.” Science (New York, N.Y.) vol. 325,5942 (2009): 866-70. doi:10.1126/science.1174443


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