There are many examples of people who lived perfectly healthy, even quite remarkable lives while sleeping considerably less than 8 hours a night. Previously, these cases were the subject of much speculation, however new research shows that the answer to this riddle could lie in our genes.

History’s micro sleepers

For most of us, consistently sleeping less than our recommended quota would lead to some serious health issues. It would no doubt also cause problems with work, family, social life and just about everything else. Basically, no-one (including us) recommends giving this a try. That said, history is littered with stories of individuals who got by with a sleep routine that would drive most of us insane. Einstein, Tesla, Edison and Da Vinci all claimed to sleep around four hours per night for example. Furthermore, Napoleon and Winston Churchill were both notoriously light sleepers, choosing instead to stay up into the wee small hours plotting military strategy (apparently fuelled by either cognac or whisky, if the rumours are to be believed).

Unique gene mutation identified 

However, recent advances in sleep science and cutting edge research has shown that there are indeed people who can survive and thrive on what most of us would consider inadequate sleep – and the key to their ability to ‘micro-sleep’ can be found in their genes. Using a technique called whole exome genome sequencing, it was established that certain gene mutations are found in ‘micro sleepers’. These gene mutations were specifically related to how our cells respond to hormones, particularly those that regulate our sleeping and waking routines and cycles.

To understand more about the mutation’s effect on the brain, genetically engineered mice were created – and to no-one’s surprise, these mice showed increased activity of brain cells and slept less than normal mice. On average, 7 minutes less REM sleep and 53 minutes less non-REM sleep.

Could we become ‘micro sleepers’ by design?

So how does this relate to us? Well, as yet, human tests have not been carried out, however studies of so-called ‘micro-sleepers’ have revealed some curious common traits. For example, the micro-sleeper’s Circadian Rhythm is different from most of us. Even more intriguingly, they display a tendency to have a more upbeat mood and a higher tolerance for psychological setbacks and even physical pain. They’re also thinner on average, despite the fact that sleep deprivation often increases the risk of obesity.

Who knows, maybe in the future this gene could be harnessed and used to manipulate our individual sleep needs? After all, if you could reduce your sleep requirement from eight to six hours a night, that would give you around 60 extra waking hours per month. What would you do with this bonus time? 60 extra hours at the gym maybe? Or why not 20 cosy dinners with your partner. Netflix marathons or meditation? It’s a tempting thought – although we suspect many of you actually enjoy sleep so much that sacrificing a couple of hours every night wouldn’t be such an attractive proposition!