Are you one of the “elite sleepers” [«elite sleepers»] that UC San Francisco researchers are excited about? These people are able to sleep only four to six hours a night without any worries. A new study demonstrates that genes associated with these short, healthy sleep patterns can slow the onset of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
According to the largest sleep study in the world, carried out in 2018, seven to eight hours of sleep would be the ideal duration to maintain good cognitive performance and optimal general health. For the majority of people, sleeping less could lead to health problems, including an increased risk of dementia and early death. Still, some people can sleep a few hours a night and still stay healthy. Researchers call them the “elite sleepers”.
“There is 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”, explains study co-author Louis Ptacek. More than a decade ago, scientists at UC San Francisco discovered the first gene for behaviors associated with short sleep – later called “familial natural short sleep” (FNSS). They have since discovered five other genes associated with this physical condition.
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The new analysis aims to determine whether this short sleep ability directly protects against degenerative diseases. The researchers then relied on two variants of specific genes linked to the FNSS and on mice genetically modified to be susceptible to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
After various experiments on animals, the team demonstrated that the two genetic variants slowed the progression of the disease. However, the explanations for this mechanism are not yet very clear. The researchers nevertheless indicate that genetic factors play a role in slowing down Alzheimer’s.
Another hypothesis, put forward by the study authors, holds that genes linked to the FNSS make the sleep process more efficient. Which means people with the genes gain the brain benefits of longer sleep in just a few hours. Co-author Ying-Hui Fu said, however, that people who don’t carry the specific genes and who get little sleep are putting themselves at risk. They may even be at risk of developing brain diseases.
However, the researchers remain very positive and say that the results of this genetic work on sleep could be the key to new treatments against progressive diseases. “This work opens the door to a new understanding of how to delay and possibly prevent many brain diseases.comments Ying-Hui Fu. Our goal is really to help everyone live healthier, longer lives by getting optimal sleep.”