Could the Secret to a Good Night’s Sleep Be Found in Our Genes?


It’s the night before a big meeting at work—or a race you’ve been training months for—and you want to do everything you can to get the next day off to a great start. How much sleep do you need to be at your best?

Jacqueline Lane, PhD

For years, the magic number for a good night’s sleep has been eight hours. While this is a good general guideline, the real answer is more complicated, says Jacqueline Lane, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher studying the genetics of sleep at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Research has shown that the amount of sleep we need varies between individuals and can depend on activity level, Lane says. Relatives from the same family also tend to have similar sleep needs, suggesting sleep habits can be influenced by our genetics. There are some families who can get by on just six hours of sleep, while others will feel foggy and have trouble concentrating if they don’t get at least eight hours.

“Obviously, there is something about the biology [between these two groups] that is different. Can we look inside their genome and find that biological difference, and understand how it is influencing their ability to sleep less without the negative consequences?”

The genetics of sleep

Lane is hoping to identify the genes responsible for sleep by comparing the genomes of individuals with sleep disorders to those who sleep normally. She explains that 99.9% of human genomes are similar, and that the diversity between people all stems from the remaining 0.1%.

By looking for changes in this small portion of the genome that varies between people, Lane may be able to identify genetic clues that help to define our sleep needs and contribute to sleep disorders such as insomnia.

“If my genome is very different at one spot compared to yours, and I have sleep trouble—and everyone who has sleep trouble has the same difference that I do—then maybe that that spot relates to how we sleep.”

The genomic data for this study has been drawn from the 500,000 participants enrolled in the UK Biobank, who have provided DNA samples and answered questions about a variety of health-related topics, including their sleep patterns. Having such a vast array of data to analyze is “a real game changer,” Lane says.

Lane’s research so far has helped to identify the area of the genome that is associated with sleep, though more work has to be done to narrow down to specific genes, and to figure out how these genes work to affect sleep behaviors.

The health implications of sleep disorders

While individual sleep needs may vary, sleep disorders such as insomnia are real and can have a significant impact on an individual’s health and quality of life, Lane says.

“We are finding that insomnia is clearly a disorder. People with insomnia have increased risk of psychiatric and metabolic disorders, and their overall life expectancy is shorter.”

If researchers are able to learn more about how the genetics of sleep impact the development of psychiatric and neurological disorders—and vice versa—they may be able to develop new prevention and treatment strategies that stem from improving sleep habits.

“People have known there is some link between psychiatric and sleep disorders, but the real question is determining the nature of that link,” Lane says. “If I can get somebody to go from sleeping six hours at night to eight hours, will that prevent them from developing depression or schizophrenia?”

Making your sleep patterns work for you

While it is not necessarily a bad thing to be genetically wired for less sleep than others, it can require some lifestyle adjustments, particularly if you live with others who need more sleep at night.

Lane recalls the story of one woman who only needed five hours of sleep each night. After the woman had children, she found that she was good at getting up and taking care of them at night because she did not need much sleep.

The woman then started fostering infants who were born to drug-addicted parents and needed a lot of attention and snuggling throughout the night.

“I think this reminds us that sometimes we think about things as a disorder, but it is all about the way you look at it,” Lane says. “She sees it as a gift, and can use it that way.”

Could Part of Our Genome Predict Future Risk for Heart Disease?


Research from Saumya Das, MD, PhD, co-director of the Resynchronization and Advanced Cardiac Therapeutics Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, focuses on studying irregular heartbeats (known as arrhythmias) in patients with heart failure, discovering new tests to better identify who is at risk for developing heart failure or arrhythmias, and uncovering new therapies to treat heart failure.

More specifically, Das is looking at a type of RNA called non-coding RNA which comprise a majority of the genome. Das’ research focuses on identifying RNA biomarkers in the blood that may forecast future risk of heart failure or arrhythmias.

A Mass General and Brigham and Women’s research team, led by Das, is currently validating a newly discovered set of RNA markers in over 4,000 patients as a part of a large-scale, NIH-funded study. Das hopes one day, certain RNA markers might translate in the clinic as a test to help stratify patients based on their risk for heart disease.

Learn more about Das’ research in this video from Advances in Motion:

Weekend Links

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We’ve hand-picked a mix of Massachusetts General Hospital and other research-related news and stories for your weekend reading enjoyment:

Trump’s doctor says he has ‘incredible genes.’ Will they keep protecting his health? – quotes and features research by MGH physician Sekar Kathiresan and investigator Chris Newton-Cheh

Increased Risk of Diabetes-Related ED Visits With Unstable Housing – Unstable housing is associated with an increased likelihood of diabetes-related emergency department visits and hospitalization, according to a study from Seth A. Berkowitz, MD, from Massachusetts General Hospital, and colleagues.

 Unflagging government support paves the long path to Nobel Prize in science

‘Loneliness kills’: Former surgeon general sounds alarm on emotional well being

Scientists Aim to Give AI to Robot Cat That Helps the Elderly

Top photo courtesy of Learning English

In Case You Missed it: Science Stories from Around the Web

We love good science stories here at the Mass General Research Institute and wanted to share a few of our favorites from other health and science websites. Enjoy!

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The best and worst analogies for CRISPR, ranked

From a knockout punch to an act of God, CRISPR technology has drawn comparisons to a vast array of things. Here is a list of 10 analogies ranked from worst to best. (STAT)

Is ‘Man Flu’ real? Men suffer more when sick, study suggests

A research team in the United Kingdom found evidence that men may have a weaker immune response to the viruses that cause the flu or common cold, and as a result, men may have a greater risk for serious symptoms.

It’s time to stop excluding people with disabilities from science

You can be a great scientist without being able to carry a 50-pound backpack out of cave, writes Gabriela Serrato Marks, a Marine Geologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Altmetric’s Top 100 Articles of the Year

In the past year, Altmetric has tracked over 18.5 million mentions of 2.2 million research outputs. Here are the Top 100 ranked in order of their Altmetric Attention Score as of Nov. 15, 2017.

What is really driving the Altmetric’s Top 100 Articles List

“There is a data availability problem plaguing Altmetric’s annual top 100 list,” argues Kent Anderson of Scholarly Kitchen in this detailed critical breakdown of how the rankings are compiled. But Anderson also concludes that “Overall, the Top 100 list remains interesting, and perhaps data availability and other elements will improve over time.”

How loneliness affects our health

Scientists are gaining a more refined—and surprising—understanding of the effects of loneliness and isolation on health. (New York Times)

Jawdropping images reveal science is amazing

Photos are said to be worth “a thousand words.” And that’s what the Royal Society looks for when judging images for their Publishing Photography Competition, which celebrates the power of photography to communicate science.

Study: Opioids overused in migraine treatment, regardless of race

African Americans are more likely to experience debilitating migraine headaches than whites, but a new study probing the issue found no evidence of racial disparities in treatment practices. Instead, researchers from the University of Michigan report a different finding that affects everyone: opioid overuse.

Check out this video of perspiration on a human fingertip

This incredible up close video shows drops of sweat forming on the ridges of human fingertips. It was the second place winner in the video portion of the Nikon Small World Competition this year.

Neuroscience can learn a lot from Buddhism

A scientist and a monk compare notes on mediation, therapy and their effects on the brain. (Atlantic Monthly)

Study Identifies New Targets for Huntington’s Disease Research

Ghazaleh Sadri-Vakili, PhD, is the director of the NeuroEpigenetics Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Institute for Neurodegenerative Diseases (MIND).  Her work investigating the genetics of Huntington’s disease was recently featured in an article on the Mass General Giving website.

Here are five things to know:

  1. Huntington’s disease (HD) is a fatal genetic disorder that causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. Symptoms typically start occurring between the ages of 30 and 50. The disease is highly heritable—each child of a parent with HD has a 50% chance of inheriting the faulty gene.
  2. According to the Huntington’s Disease Society of America (HDSA), symptoms of HD typically begin with a loss of coordination and cognitive skills. These declines get more pronounced as the disease progresses. In late stages, HD patients lose the ability to walk and speak, and choking becomes a major concern. Death is typically due to complications from the disease and not the disease itself.
  3. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have been at the forefront of research into the genetic underpinnings of Huntington’s disease for the past two decades. In 1983, a team led by James Gusella, PhD, identified the section on chromosome 4 where the HD gene was located. In 1993, a multi-institutional research group that included Marcy E. MacDonald, PhD, and Dr. Gusella identified the gene itself.
  4. Recently, a research team led by Ghazaleh Sadri-Vakili, PhD, has been studying how gene expression differs in patients with HD. Her team has identified two ways in which a genetic pathway known as the Hippo pathway malfunctions in HD. These malfunctions cause HD patients to produce too much of an enzyme called MST, and not enough of a protein called YAP.
  5. If researchers are able to identify drugs that correct this imbalance, they may be able to develop treatments that slow or halt the progression of the disease.

Weekend Links


We’ve hand-picked a mix of Massachusetts General Hospital and other research-related news and stories for your weekend reading enjoyment:

Creative Minds: A New Way to Look at Cancer

Better Patient-Provider Communication Needed for Obesity Care

Eugenics 2.0: We’re at the Dawn of Choosing Embryos by Health, Height, and More

6 Speaking Tips for Scientists and Engineers (editor’s note: Melissa Marshall, featured in this article, recently spoke to Mass General clinicians about how to effectively present scientific work. We were so impressed by her talk that we wanted to introduce her to our readers) 

Looking for a great book for the young scientist in your life? The long list of 2018 AAAS/Subaru SB&F (Science Books and Films) Prize winners for Excellence in Science Books has been released. Prizes are awarded each year in the following categories:

  • Children’s Science Picture Books
  • Middle Grade Science Books
  • Young Adult Science Books
  • Hands on Science Books

See the full list here


Top photo: courtesy of Tim Lahan, MIT Technology Review

Team Effort Finds First Definitive Answers to Complex Genetic Basis of Tourette Syndrome

A large scale analysis of genetic information from individuals with Tourette syndrome led by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and UCLA has identified alterations in two genes that significantly increase the risk of developing the disorder.

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A team effort between genetic researchers, clinicians, a patient advocacy group and volunteer study participants has revealed new genetic insights into Tourette syndrome—a neuropsychiatric disorder that results in involuntary physical and verbal tics.

The study helps to confirm the theory that Tourette syndrome results from a complex series of genetic changes rather than a single mutated gene. It may also provide comfort for individuals with the disorder, who are often stigmatized for their uncontrollable movements and outbursts.

Jeremiah Scharf quoto

Continue reading “Team Effort Finds First Definitive Answers to Complex Genetic Basis of Tourette Syndrome”

Biobank Reveals Novel Research Kiosks

At the Partners HealthCare Biobank, everyone has the ability to help shape the future of healthcare. The Biobank is a research initiative that brings patients, clinicians, and investigators together to make research discoveries that improve care for generations to come. Patients are asked to provide consent, a blood sample, and take a health survey. These contributions are used in cutting edge research projects on a variety of health conditions.

On April 28th the Biobank unveiled two interactive research kiosks located in the Wang and Yawkey 2 lobbies. The main objective of the kiosks is to raise awareness of the project throughout Mass General. The kiosks are a novel tool to help build a partnership between patients and researchers. They are also one of many initiatives implemented by the Biobank to make involvement in medical research more accessible to patients. Our community’s engagement with the Biobank is crucial because the more people who join, the more power researchers have to make discoveries that impact our health.

Patients are invited to help the Biobank with this progression of innovative research by learning more online at At the Biobank, discovery starts with you.

Raising Awareness of Belly Fat and Its Impact on Men’s Health

Body-Type-BannerDid you know that in addition to June being Men’s Health Month in the United States, this week (June 12th-18th) is Men’s Health Week in the UK? The focus this year is on belly fat which tends to be more prevalent in men than women.

Regardless of a person’s overall weight, belly fat—also called abdominal adiposity— can increase the risk for developing a number of health issues including colorectal cancer, stroke and sleep apnea.

A recent study by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital also found that individuals who have a genetic disposition for belly fat were at a higher risk of developing both diabetes and heart disease when compared to individuals who store fat primarily in their hips and thighs.

While genetics are a big factor in where fat gets stored, proper diet and exercise can help lessen the risk.


Stay tuned for more posts about men’s health all this week leading up to Father’s Day.

Missing Genes Point to New Drug Targets

34702881 - background high tech image of dna moleculeThe Human Genome Project provided a ‘parts-list’ of genes, about 18,000 in number. Now, researchers are studying what it means to be missing a part. In an analysis of the genomes of 10,000 research participants, Mass General’s Dr. Sekar Kathiresan and his research team found 1,300 genes which were broken in at least one participant. For example, several individuals were missing a working copy of the APOC3 gene and as a result, these individuals had lower blood levels of fat and were protected from heart attack.

Such examples help us understand the function of a gene in humans and also point to new drug targets. This study sets the stage for an ambitious ‘Human Knockout Project’, a systematic effort to understand gene function by identifying and characterizing humans who naturally lack a gene.

Interested in learning more on this study? Check out this post from the NIH Director’s Blog. For more information about Dr. Kathiresan’s work with Mass General’s Center for Genomic Medicine, visit their website.

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