For years, researchers around the world have been looking into why some people are naturally able to thrive on less sleep than the rest of us. There’s now been a breakthrough in that search, as scientists at the University of Pennsylvania say they’ve located the “short sleeper” gene.
Short sleepers are able to function at a high level while only sleeping for five or even fewer hours per night. It is estimated that less than one percent of the population has this ability.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania say they believe the ability is due to a mutation of the little-understood BHLHE41 gene. The gene is believed to be involved in controlling circadian rhythms.
As part of their study, the Pennsylvania scientists investigated 100 pairs of twins – both identical and fraternal. The twins were deprived of sleep for 38 hours. After the sleep deprivation period, the subjects’ alertness was tested every two hours, and then they were also tested to see how much rest thy needed to fully recover from the sleep deprivation.
As a result of that research, the team narrowed the field down to one pair of non-identical twins. One of them had a variation called p.Tyr362His in their BHLHE41 gene. The twin with the mutation regularly slept one fewer hour than his sibling, made 40 percent fewer mistakes on the test when sleep deprived, and needed 1.5 fewer hours to recover after the experiment finished.
Some have begun calling BHLHE41 the “Thatcher Gene”. The late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is believed by many to have been a short sleeper, famously resting for only four hours per night. It’s not known for sure if she truly was a short sleeper, however. Some point to health problems she had after leaving office as evidence that sleep deprivation had caught up with her. Other historical figures thought to have been short sleepers include Napoleon Bonaparte and Leonardo da Vinci.