Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Stencil’s dream closer to reality?

Posted by Darin Hayton on 08/18 at 10:15 PM

In Thomas Pynchon’s novel V., Herbert Stencil comes to realize that life is too short to accomplish everything he wants or even needs to accomplish. This realization forces him to make some choices about how he is going to squander what time remains. While he can’t extend his life, he can increase the amount of time he is awake and active. Through sheer force of will, he upends his circadian rhythms and decides to forego sleep:

Since 1945, Herbert Stencil had been on a conscious campaign to do without sleep. Before 1945 he had been slothful, accepting sleep as one of life’s major blessings. …
Whatever the reason, he began to discover that sleep was taking up time which could be spent active. His random movements before the war had given way to a great single movement from inertness to - if not vitality, then at least activity. Work, the chase - for it was V. he hunted - far from being a means to glorify God and one’s own godliness (as the Puritans believe) was for Stencil grim, joyless; a conscious acceptance of the unpleasant for no other reason than that V. was there to track down.

Stencil’s campaign may have just become closer to reality.

An article in last Thursday’s NY Times reports that researchers at UC San Francisco have identified a genetic mutation in two people who need considerably less sleep than the average person: “Mutation Tied to Need for Less Sleep is Discovered.” Summarizing a report in Science,1 the NY Times article opens with modest claims that the latest findings might lead to treatments for insomnia and other sleep disorders, and ends by relating a co-author’s “fantasy” that the research might eventually lead to people being able to stay awake longer, whether because they have to or because they want to.

In brief,2 researchers studying sleep patterns noticed that amongst a group of people reporting “extremely early wake up times” two women (a mother-daughter pair) shared a genetic point mutation (hDEC2, for those who care). These two women (aged 69 and 44) reported going to sleep at normal times (ca. 10:00-10:30) but waking around 4:00-4:30, without an alarm. Whereas average Americans report sleeping 7.4 hours each night on non-work days, these two women report an average of 6 and 6.5 hours. An activity-rest study showed extended period of activity in a ten-day period. Because only two subjects showed the mutation, the researchers then introduced the mutation into mice and studied their activity and sleep patterns. Further, a corresponding mutation was introduced into Drosophila. Patterns of activity and inactivity confirmed the connection between the DEC2 mutation and sleep, leading to the strong conclusion:

Our results demonstrate that DEC2 plays an important role in regulating daily total sleep time in mammals and that the control of sleep-like behavior may be conserved and regulated in a similar manner as far back in evolution as invertebrates.

Looking at the NY Times article, a few quick thoughts come to mind:

  • I would have liked to see more substantial material from the co-author. The quotations are banal and don’t help us understand the research (e.g., “We know sleep is necessary for life, but we know so little about sleep,” or “They want to get up and do things. They arrange all their major tasks in their morning.”). It seems likely that Dr. Fu (the co-author) probably spoke at greater length about the work, but only these bits were selected out of what she said to include in the article (Michael C. Munger recently wrote a useful primer on speaking to the media: No Turtles: Faculty-Media Relations, which might account for any discrepancies between what Dr. Fu thought she said and what the reported quoted).

  • I wish the article would have hewn more closely to the report, especially for some of the “facts” it cited. E.g., the NY Times summary claims that the average American needs 8-8.5 hours of sleep per night (sadly, this number was also quoted from Dr. Fu), whereas the Science report claims that on non-work days the average American sleeps 7.4 hours. Both figures are higher than the 6.25 average that the two women showing the DEC2 mutation report, but 8-8.5 seems considerably higher. Simple exaggerations like this distort the report and its conclusions.

  • Although the article in the NY Times has to simplify and condense the original research report, the summary article seems to capture the tone of the original report. Many people, especially science-oriented bloggers, have accused traditional news outlets of distorting the science they report by sanitizing it or effacing the ambiguities and uncertainties inherent in scientific research. In this case, reading either the NY Times summary or the Science report conveys largely the same impression: DEC2 is unproblematically responsible for sleep patterns. Another phenotype successfully traced back to its genotype.

1The report is Ying He et al., “The Transcriptional Repressor DEC2 Regulates Sleep Length in Mammals,” Science 325(14 August 2009): 866–70 (the abstract is available free of charge; the full text requires a subscription to Science).
2Note, this is my summary of the Science report itself and not a recap of the NY Times article.

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