Living with a short sleep gene: 'It's a gift'

Brad Johnson at one (right) with brother Paul age three (left)

(CNN)For as long as he can remember, Brad Johnson knew he was different.

"I've never been normal when it came to sleep," Brad told CNN. "Other people, even some of my siblings, slept eight, nine, 10 hours a night. I just couldn't do it, it was physically impossible. If you paid me a million dollars to sleep eight hours tonight, I couldn't."
It didn't seem to matter what time he went to bed, how little sleep he'd had or how tired he was from the day's activities, both as a child and now, at age 64, Brad said.
    'I'd get five hours and be done. Up, ready to go," he said. "I wasn't groggy, I wasn't tired, just ready to roll and go."
      Johnson family, 1961: Front row from left: Todd, Winnie Amacher Johnson is holding Scott, Vere Hodges Johnson, Brad, Kathy. Back row: Paul, Janice, Rand
      Brad wasn't alone. In his large Mormon family of eight kids, his two older brothers Rand and Paul also woke early and suffered no ill effects. In fact, the boys were amazingly productive, driven to wake and immediately tackle life with gusto and high spirits.
      In the dark, wee hours of those mornings the boys practiced basketball, did homework and hobbies and read everything they could get their hands on.
      "Everyone in our family loves to read," Brad said. "We are voracious, voracious readers."
      Brad's older sisters Janice and Kathy also struggled to stay in bed, as did their dad, Vere Johnson.
      "I'm almost certain he was a short sleeper, he always up early in the morning and he had this amazing energy level," Brad said. "Mom, however, was a normal sleeper. She'd get seven or eight hours."
      The three youngest members of the family, Todd, Scott, and Rob, also had no trouble snoozing the night away, if their dad or siblings allowed it.
      "I kinda remember being really irritated once in awhile when they'd turn the lights on me," said 63-year-old Todd Johnson. "I like sleeping."

      A special family reunion

      The years went by. Everyone married, prospered and had large families of their own.
      "I only have four children and nine grandchildren, it's probably one of the smallest families," said Brad's oldest sister, 71-year-old Janice Stauffer.
      "Brad has eight, Paul has nine and my younger sister Kathy has 13 children and 70 grandchildren, but that's a guesstimate," said Janice with a chuckle. "When we have family reunions every other year in Utah, it's a big mob, maybe 200 or 250 people can be there."
      It was at one of those bi-yearly reunions -- July 4, 2005 to be exact -- when Brad Johnson, his siblings and some of his large, extended family made history. They became one of the first multi-generational families to be tested for what would be later called the "short sleep gene."
      "It was a big deal for sure and the whole family were very nice and very interested in the science," said sleep specialist Chris Jones, a professor emeritus of neurology at the University of Utah, who collected the family's blood and DNA samples.
      The Johnson family Reunion, July 2003, just two years before the genetic test. Back row: Kathy, Paul, Rand, Rob, Todd and Janice. Front row: Brad, Vere, Winnie, Scott.
      Brad wrote into his journal that night: "For most of the day Dr. Chris Jones and his assistant were there talking with members of the family and taking blood samples for a study he is doing on sleep behavior.
      "We have some bad sleepers in the family — Dad, Rand, Janice, Paul, me — and he thinks there may be some things to learn from the family. I hope our family can lead to some solutions to sleep issues for us and others."

      'Serendipity'

      The birth of the idea that people might sleep for only five hours and bypass the ill effects of sleep deprivation was sheer "serendipity," said neurology professor Ying-Hui Fu, who conducts sleep gene research at the Weill Institute for Neurosciences at the University of California, San Francisco.
      Jones and Fu, who was at the University of Utah at the time, had been studying advanced sleep-phase syndrome, thought to be a rare type of "morning lark." These were people who would fall asleep by 7 p.m. -- no matter how hard they tried to stay awake -- and get up extremely early, say by 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. A gene appeared to be responsible for that unusual circadian rhythm, and the team published a number of papers on it.
      "Nobody had any idea that our sleep actually can be regulated by genetics until we published the first paper," Fu said.
      But not all of their study subjects fit that early-to-bed pattern.
      "We went back to look at this one family and we realized they actually don't go to bed early, they go to bed just like the rest of us," Fu said. "But they get up very early, which means that they just sleep a few hours."
      The Johnson siblings in 2009: Rob, Brad, Paul, Kathy, Janice, Rand, Todd and Scott.
      The hunt was on for more people -- like the Johnsons -- who fit that pattern. By 2009, the team published their first finding: There was a mutation in the gene DEC2 which caused short sleepers to stay awake longer. Since then, the team has discovered two more genes -- an ADRB1 mutation and a NPSR1 mutation -- which alter neurotransmitters in the human brain to create short sleep.
      During each of these studies, the team bred mice with the same genetic mutations to test the gene's function. The results: Genetically-altered mice also slept for fewer hours, with no negative health effects.

      Personality traits

      As research progressed, the team discovered there were also some positive personality characteristics that came along with the ability to successfully sleep for only five hours. Many short sleepers were ambitious, type A personalities, but also incredibly positive, outgoing and optimistic.
      "They were not just awake, they were driven. It was torture for them to do nothing," Jones said. "They like to run marathons -- many of our natural short sleepers ran marathons -- including mountain marathons where you go straight up. One of them decided he was going to build a violin, and he did.
      "The drive they have is physical, but also psychological: 'I'm gonna do this.' It's really quite remarkable," Jones added.
      While these traits did not apply to every short sleeper, Fu said, some 90% to 95% of the people in the studies had these common characteristics, including phenomenal memories.
      Even the mice in the study shared some of these traits. They were more active and productive than typical mice, and seemed to have better memories, even though they slept less.
      Sleep is the time when the body consolidates memories, and cleanses the brain of neurotoxins. Without the