A team of researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School, in association with Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), has uncovered 76 new gene regions linked to sleep duration. In previous studies, it has been suggested that from 10 to 40 percent of variation in sleep duration may be genetic.
“While we spend about a third of our life asleep, we have little knowledge of the specific genes and pathways that regulate the amount of sleep people get,” said Hassan Saeed Dashti, Ph.D., an expert in Genetics and Bioinformatics at the MGH Center for Genomic Medicine.
For the new study, researchers gathered self-reported data of 446,000 participants from the U.K. Biobank pertaining to sleep quality and duration.
Researchers identified 76 gene regions, and an additional two previously discovered, associated with sleep duration. Although having a single gene variant affected the average sleep duration by only one minute, participants with the largest amount of duration-increasing variants saw, on average, 22 more minutes of sleep compared to their counterpart with the fewest.
The findings, based solely on self-reported data, were checked for accuracy by testing the 78 duration-associated variants in a subgroup of participants, who were instructed to wear accelerometers for an estimated seven days.
“Not only were those gene regions supported by objective measurement of sleep duration, but this analysis was also able to associate duration-related variants with factors such as sleep efficiency, instances of waking up during the night and daytime inactivity,” according to an MGH press release.
“Only a few of the gene regions identified in this study overlap with those identified in the group’s previous studies of insomnia and chronotype. The sites identified in this study showed consistent effects with a previous GWAS of more than 47,000 adults but limited consistency with another GWAS of sleep duration among more than 10,500 children and adolescents, which supports research suggesting that the genetics of sleep duration may be different in children than in adults.”
Based on the findings, Dashti theorized that numerous genes crucial for sleep in animal models could also influence sleep in humans and subsequently provide a better outlook into the function of sleep.
“Our study suggests that many of the genes important for sleep in animal models may also influence sleep in humans and opens the door to better understanding of the function and regulation of sleep.”
The findings were published in Nature Communications.