Living with a short sleep gene: ‘It’s a gift’

Living With A Short Sleep Gene: ‘it’s A Gift’
Courtesy Brad Johnson

Pictured with his wife Rosie, Brad Johnson and his family became one of the first multi-generational families to be tested for what would be later called the "short sleep gene."

For as long as he can remember, Brad Johnson knew he was different.

“I’ve never been normal when it came to sleep,” Brad told CNN. “Other people, even some of my siblings, slept eight, nine, 10 hours a night. I just couldn’t do it, it was physically impossible. If you paid me a million dollars to sleep eight hours tonight, I couldn’t.”

It didn’t seem to matter what time he went to bed, how little sleep he’d had or how tired he was from the day’s activities, both as a child and now, at age 64, Brad said.

‘I’d get five hours and be done. Up, ready to go,” he said. “I wasn’t groggy, I wasn’t tired, just ready to roll and go.”

Brad wasn’t alone. In his large Mormon family of eight kids, his two older brothers Rand and Paul also woke early and suffered no ill effects. In fact, the boys were amazingly productive, driven to wake and immediately tackle life with gusto and high spirits.

In the dark, wee hours of those mornings the boys practiced basketball, did homework and hobbies and read everything they could get their hands on.

Brad’s older sisters Janice and Kathy also struggled to stay in bed, as did their dad, Vere Johnson.

“I’m almost certain he was a short sleeper, he always up early in the morning and he had this amazing energy level,” Brad said. “Mom, however, was a normal sleeper. She’d get seven or eight hours.”

The three youngest members of the family, Todd, Scott, and Rob, also had no trouble snoozing the night away, if their dad or siblings allowed it.

“I kinda remember being really irritated once in awhile when they’d turn the lights on me,” said 63-year-old Todd Johnson. “I like sleeping.”

A special family reunion

The years went by. Everyone married, prospered and had large families of their own.

“I only have four children and nine grandchildren, it’s probably one of the smallest families,” said Brad’s oldest sister, 71-year-old Janice Stauffer.

“When we have family reunions every other year in Utah, it’s a big mob, maybe 200 or 250 people can be there.”

It was at one of those bi-yearly reunions — July 4, 2005 to be exact — when Brad Johnson, his siblings and some of his large, extended family made history. They became one of the first multi-generational families to be tested for what would be later called the “short sleep gene.”

“It was a big deal for sure and the whole family were very nice and very interested in the science,” said sleep specialist Chris Jones, a professor emeritus of neurology at the University of Utah, who collected the family’s blood and DNA samples.

Brad wrote into his journal that night: “For most of the day Dr. Chris Jones and his assistant were there talking with members of the family and taking blood samples for a study he is doing on sleep behavior.

“We have some bad sleepers in the family — Dad, Rand, Janice, Paul, me — and he thinks there may be some things to learn from the family. I hope our family can lead to some solutions to sleep issues for us and others.”

The birth of the idea that people might sleep for only five hours and bypass the ill effects of sleep deprivation was sheer “serendipity,” said neurology professor Ying-Hui Fu, who conducts sleep gene research at the Weill Institute for Neurosciences at the University of California, San Francisco.

Jones and Fu, who was at the University of Utah at the time, had been studying advanced sleep-phase syndrome, thought to be a rare type of “morning lark.” These were people who would fall asleep by 7 p.m. — no matter how hard they tried to stay awake — and get up extremely early, say by 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. A gene appeared to be responsible for that unusual circadian rhythm, and the team published a number of papers on it.

“Nobody had any idea that our sleep actually can be regulated by genetics until we published the first paper,” Fu said.

But not all of their study subjects fit that early-to-bed pattern.

“We went back to look at this one family and we realized they actually don’t go to bed early, they go to bed just like the rest of us,” Fu said. “But they get up very early, which means that they just sleep a few hours.”

The hunt was on for more people like the Johnsons who fit that pattern. By 2009, the team published their first finding: There was a mutation in the gene DEC2 which caused short sleepers to stay awake longer. Since then, the team has discovered two more genes, an ADRB1 mutation and a NPSR1 mutation, which alter neurotransmitters in the human brain to create short sleep.

“I am rarely, rarely ever tired during the day. I never take naps,” Brad said. “This gene has allowed me to be in some demanding roles and positions. It’s given me these additional hours each day that I can do things that I love, be with people I love.

“This has been a gift throughout my life,” he added. “A true gift.”

Personality traits

As research progressed, the team discovered there were also some positive personality characteristics that came along with the ability to successfully sleep for only five hours. Many short sleepers were ambitious, type A personalities, but also incredibly positive, outgoing and optimistic.

“They were not just awake, they were driven. It was torture for them to do nothing,” Jones said. “They like to run marathons — many of our natural short sleepers ran marathons — including mountain marathons where you go straight up. One of them decided he was going to build a violin, and he did.

“The drive they have is physical, but also psychological: ‘I’m gonna do this.’ It’s really quite remarkable,” Jones added.

While these traits did not apply to every short sleeper, Fu said, some 90% to 95% of the people in the studies had these common characteristics, including phenomenal memories.