Need For Less Sleep Associated with Gene Mutation

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Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have discovered the first gene involved in regulating the length of human sleep. The study, published recently in the journal Science, identified a genetic mutation that is associated with a short human sleep phenotype [1]. The finding may help scientists better understand the regulatory mechanisms of sleep and lead to treatments for a variety of sleep disorders.


Researchers identified a small extended family with two individuals who had lifelong shorter daily sleep times than normal individuals (self-reported average of 6.25 hours vs. 8.06 hours). DNA sequencing identified a point mutation in the gene DEC2 (Differentially expressed in chondrocytes protein 2) (chondrocytes are the only cells found in cartilage, the connective tissue within joints). In mice, DEC2 has been previously identified as a component of the mammalian circadian clock (the ~24-hour wake-sleep cycle), repressing the expression of other circadian clock genes [2]. In vitro tests showed that the human mutation reduced the repressive activity of DEC2.

To examine the effect of the mutation, scientists generated DEC2 transgenic mice (meaning a mouse with a segment of DNA that originated in a different species, in this case two copies of the human DEC2 gene, one containing the point mutation and one normal copy). Studies showed that these mice slept less compared to controls. To study sleep directly, electroencephalography (EEG) and electromyography (EMG) tests were performed. The results suggest that the DEC2 point mutation does not affect the depth of sleep. Rather, the sleep structure of mice containing the DEC2 point mutation appeared more fragmented than that of normal mice, particularly non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep (about 80% of sleep is spent in dreamless NREM sleep). Further studies found that mice with the mutation also recovered quicker from periods of sleep deprivation compared to normal mice.

Studies were then done in fruit-flies expressing either the normal mouse Dec2 gene or the mouse Dec2 gene containing the point mutation. Flies expressing the mouse Dec2 gene containing the point mutation showed significantly lower daytime sleeplike behavior compared with flies expressing the normal mouse Dec2 gene. Thus, the shortened sleep effect of the DEC2 point mutation was replicated in both mouse and fruit-flies.

What’s interesting about this study is that a genetic mutation can lead to a behavioral trait, not just an observable characteristic.

Seven in ten adults report not getting enough rest or sleep at least once in the past month. Over time, the body suffers from short term sleep deprivation. Not only does the lack of sleep increase your susceptibility to the common cold, chronic sleep disruptions can have serious consequences on cognition, mood and physical health.

How much is too little or too much sleep? There is no magic number. Different age groups need different amounts of sleep, but sleep needs are also individual. Generally speaking, research shows that most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep, while younger children need as much as 10-14 hours [3]. For more information on the importance of sleep as well as sleep-related problems, visit the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).


  1. He et al. The transcriptional repressor DEC2 regulates sleep length in mammals. Science. 2009 Aug 14;325(5942):866-70. DOI: 10.1126/science.1174443
    View abstract
  2. Honma et al. Dec1 and Dec2 are regulators of the mammalian molecular clock. Nature. 2002 Oct 24;419(6909):841-4.
    View abstract
  3. How Much Sleep Do We Really Need? National Sleep Foundation. Accessed 2009 Sept 1.
About the Author

Walter Jessen, Ph.D. is a Data Scientist, Digital Biologist, and Knowledge Engineer. His primary focus is to build and support expert systems, including AI (artificial intelligence) and user-generated platforms, and to identify and develop methods to capture, organize, integrate, and make accessible company knowledge. His research interests include disease biology modeling and biomarker identification. He is also a Principal at Highlight Health Media, which publishes Highlight HEALTH, and lead writer at Highlight HEALTH.