Napoleon Bonaparte, Margaret Thatcher, Leonardo da Vinci … history is full of names of famous figures who accomplished historical feats on reportedly few hours of sleep.
Now, new research suggests they may have had a certain genetic advantage.
Scientists at Germany’s Ludwig Maximalians University of Munich have found that one gene, called ABCC9, influences sleep duration and could explain why certain people seem able to operate on limited amounts of shut-eye. The researchers studied responses to a sleep survey from more than 4,000 Europeans in seven different countries and also scanned their genomes. They found that people who had two copies of a particular variant of the ABCC9 gene generally reported sleeping for shorter periods than those who had two copies of a different version of the gene.
The ABCC9 gene has been previously linked to heart disease and diabetes. These latest findings on the genetic factor’s role in sleep duration add to a growing body of evidence suggesting a connection between sleep and cardiovascular health. A 2008 study found a connection between lack of sleep and a dangerous build-up of calcium in the arteries. Sleep apnea, a sleep disorder marked by abnormal pauses in breathing, has also been associated with high blood pressure and heart attacks.
“Apparently, the relationships of sleep duration with other conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes, can be in part explained by an underlying common molecular mechanism,” study author Karla Allebrandt told the U.K.’s Daily Mail.
The scientists also found that the ABCC9 gene controls sleep duration in fruit flies, providing a clue to the gene’s evolutionary age, Allebrandt said.
Scientists are gradually learning more about the genetics behind sleep habits. In 2008, researchers found a gene associated with narcolepsy, a rare but devastating sleep disorder. A 2010 study identified genetic differences that make some people sleepier than others, even after they’ve had a full night’s rest. Dr. Mark Mahowald, medical director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, told ABC News that there’s more to sleep habits than most people think.
“Our society has equated sleepiness with defects of character, like laziness and depression, but really, some people are generally sleepier during the day,” Mahowald said. “We have to accept the fact that sleep duration is genetically determined and not a sign of a defect.”
ABC News’ Mikaela Conley contributed to this report.