DNA and the Need for Sleep

DNA is the code that forms the basis for all life, from simple protein synthesis to the construction of complex organs and biological systems. The way these organs and systems function, and the behaviors that result from these functions, area direct result from the details of the organism’s DNA. Because of this basic nature of DNA, it seems that a DNA test could be used to test behavioral traits such as sleeping patterns. Ideally, it seems that a basic DNA test could determine the optimal sleep time for any given individual.

The genetic testing company 23andMe has done several studies relating sleep with DNA. In a study they performed in 2016 and published in Nature Communications[1], they analysed the genomes and habits of over 89,000 people and identified a genetic difference between so called “morning people” (people who tend to rise early in the morning) and “night owls” (people who tend to stay up late at night). While this study did not specifically test the correlation between DNA and sleeping duration, it did find a correlation between the DNA and sleeping patterns, and also identified that morning people tended to sleep less than night owls.

A second indication that DNA could be used to identify the optimal sleep duration is a rare phenomena called delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD). A person affected by this disease is unable to sleep until very late at night, and then finds it extremely difficult to get up until late in the morning. A similar, though reverse, disease is advanced sleep phase disorder (ASPD), where the subject goes to sleep very early in the evening, and wakes up around midnight. DSPD and ASPD are strongly genetic diseases, with most subjects having relatives with the same disorder. Several articles in the last few years have linked these diseases with errors in the PER3 gene, which regulates the sleep cycle. Since shortening or lengthening of the PER3 gene can lead to alterations in the sleep cycle, it doesn’t seem strange that a DNA test could indicate the optimum sleep time for a given person.

In 2014, a study published in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry determined a genetic location that affects sleep duration[2]. The study used over 50,000 subjects and discovered that an allele located in between genes coded for longer sleeping times. Each copy of this allele corresponded to a 3.1-minute increase in sleeping time. This same allele also correlates with a lower risk of attention deficit disorder and a better metabolic profile. While the way this allele affects sleep duration is still not fully understood, it seems to indicate that the basis of sleep timing is indeed genetic.

There are multiple scientific studies that indicate that sleep patterns and times are genetically related. Studies of sleep habits, diseases related to sleep, and sleep duration all have discovered specific genes that affect them. While as of yet, no rigorous DNA test has been developed to determine the ideal sleeping parameters for a given individual, recent scientific research indicates that this test will someday be possible.

  • Updated September 9, 2017
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