"DEC2 is probably a very, very rare mutation. It was found in one family out of 60," he says. "So this mutation explains only some 1% of short sleepers, and we are far from having a complete story."
To prove that the gene affects the need for sleep, Fu and colleagues genetically engineered mice to carry the human DEC2 gene. Sure enough, the mice slept less and stayed awake longer.
When the mice were deprived of sleep, the mutant mice needed less sleep to recover when they finally were allowed to rest.
"These mice just don't need as much sleep," Fu says.
Why? Fu thinks the mutant gene somehow helps mice -- and people -- overcome their sleep need while somehow allowing them to sleep just long enough to stay healthy.
A Drug for Less Sleep?
So what would happen if someone made a drug that did exactly the same thing as the DEC2 mutation?
"If I had a drug that gave a similar effect as DEC2, it is possible it would be pretty safe because the humans who carry it are safe with the mutation," Fu says.
Tafti notes that before anyone tries to make a DEC2-like drug, future research will identify more proteins that affect sleep need.
"Then probably we can act on this pathway and increase sleep or reduce sleep, or make sleep more intense, or improve recovery from sleep deprivation. But that will be for the next decades, not this one," he says.
The Fu study, and an editorial by Tafti and colleague Hyun Hor, MD, appear in the Aug. 14 issue of the journal Science.