A ‘night owl’ gene may be to blame for your sleepless nights

If you have trouble going to bed at night, you may have this mutation.

If you have a habit of staying up late at night showing up to work with just a couple hours’ rest, scientists have identified the cause: you may have the ‘night owl’ gene.

For people affected by Delayed Phase Sleep Disorder (DPSD), going to sleep on time can be difficult, and waking up in the morning can be just as much of a challenge. With a disrupted circadian rhythm, sufferers keep irregular hours and can struggle to maintain standard schedules.

Scientists researching DPSD have identified a genetic mutation called CRY1, which was present in individuals who presented symptoms of the disorder. In the study, published on Cell, researchers selected 70 people from six families, some of whom suffered from DPSD. Scientists did not find the mutation in subjects who did not present symptoms of the disorder.

“Carriers of the mutation have longer days than the planet gives them, so they are essentially playing catch-up for their entire lives,” said Alina Patke, the lead author of the study and associate at the Laboratory of Genetics at the Rockefeller University.

In her interview with Live Science, Patke says that people with DPSD may not necessarily suffer from the disorder if they have jobs and lifestyles to accommodate the condition.

“A person like a bartender, for example, might not experience any problem with the delayed sleep cycle,” Patke said. “But someone like a surgeon who has to be in the OR in the early morning – that’s not compatible.”

Patke’s team first identified the genetic mutation seven years ago when a 46-year-old woman presented symptoms of DPSD at their sleep clinic. The scientists observed her natural sleep pattern in an apartment without any windows, TV or internet—providing her with no way to tell the time.

The patient settled into a regular pattern that was an hour longer than the standard 24-hour circadian cycle. When they sequenced her genes, the scientists discovered a single-point mutation of her CRY1 gene. Additional studies found that carriers of the mutated gene similarly kept unconventional sleep schedules.

Patke says that she hopes her team’s research will enable scientists to further understand how the genetic mutation affects sleep cycles and find ways to develop treatments for sleep disorders.

If you have the mutation, there is still hope. “There are steps you can take to try and match your internal rhythms to the outside world,” Patke said, suggesting that DPSD sufferers could practice “good sleep hygiene” by going to bed at a set time, avoiding bright lights at night, and exposing yourself to sunlight in the morning.