Most of us need a solid seven hours of sleep in order to be at our best the next day. But for one in 100 people, sleeping for just four hours is all that’s needed to operate at 100%. These individuals are known as “elite sleepers,” and scientists believe they may hold the key to beating dementia and other age-related neurological diseases.
Elite sleepers are gifted with genes that pack the benefits of slumber into an efficient time window. Amazingly, their brains show incredible psychological resilience and resistance to mental decline.
Of course, doctors recommend six to eight hours of sleep for optimal health.
“There is a dogma in the field that everyone needs eight hours of sleep,” says senior author Dr. Louis Ptacek, a neurologist at the University of California San Francisco, in a statement. “But our work to date confirms the amount of sleep people need differs based on genetics. Think of it as analogous to height. There is no perfect amount of height, each person is different. We have shown that the case is similar for sleep.”
For over a decade, the UCSF team has been tracking people with the condition, Familial Natural Short Sleep (FNSS). Some of the most-well known elite sleepers include former Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Bill Clinton; Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, and Tesla’s Elon Musk. Such individuals have a preference for four to six hours of sleep.
Scientists have identified five genes across the genome that play a role, with many more still to be discovered.
The latest study now backs co-senior author Ying-Hui Fu’s theory that elite sleep shields against neurodegenerative illnesses. It contradicts current thinking that, for many, lack of sleep accelerates loss of neurons. The difference, she says, is with FNSS the brain accomplishes its sleep tasks in a shorter time.
In other words, less time spent sleeping may not necessarily equate to a lack of sleep.
In experiments, mice were bred to carry both genes that predisposed them to both short-sleep and Alzheimer’s. Their brains developed far fewer of the hallmark rogue proteins linked to the disease. Results were confirmed by repeating the test using lab rodents with different short-sleep and dementia genes.
Similar investigations of other brain conditions should show the efficient-sleep genes conferring comparable protections. Improving peoples’ sleep could delay progression of disease across a whole spectrum of conditions.
“Sleep problems are common in all diseases of the brain. This makes sense because sleep is a complex activity,” says Fu. “Many parts of your brain have to work together for you to fall asleep and to wake up. When these parts of the brain are damaged, it makes it harder to sleep or get quality sleep.”
Understanding the biological underpinnings could lead to drugs that ward off sleep disorders. Moreover, boosting sleep in healthy people may sustain wellbeing and improve the quality of time we each have. But pursuing the many genes involved is a long game the researchers liken to putting together a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle.
“Every mutation we find is another piece. Right now we are working on the edges and the corners, to get to that place where it is easier to put the pieces together and where the picture really starts to emerge,” says Ptacek.
There is already promise in some of the few genes they have identified. At least one can be targeted by repurposing existing drugs. The researchers hope they will have helped facilitate treatments that allow people with brain disorders to get a better night’s rest within a decade.
“This work opens the door to a new understanding of how to delay and possibly prevent a lot of diseases,” adds Fu. “Our goal really is to help everyone live healthier and longer through getting optimum sleep.”
The study is published in the journal iScience.