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Research identifies gene associated with resilience to sleep deprivation

Story by Judith Van Dongen, WSU Spokane Office of Research

Why do some people handle lack of sleep so much better than others?

It’s one question that researchers in the WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center have been trying to answer. Previous studies by WSU sleep scientists have found that differences in performance impairment in response to sleep deprivation are rooted in our biology and vary depending on the type of task we are trying to tackle. Based on those findings and other WSU research, graduate neuroscience student Brieann Satterfield is working to find the genes that could help explain these differences.

One discovery Satterfield has made is that, during sleep deprivation, people who have a specific mutation in the gene that controls the brain protein TNF-alpha perform significantly better on a reaction time test that measures sustained attention than those who do not. Sustained attention, or the ability to stay focused on a task, is critical for driving a car, flying a plane, or monitoring systems in a power station. Satterfield’s finding, which is based on data from 88 participants in five previously conducted sleep deprivation studies, was published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.
Although the TNF-alpha gene explains just part of the study participants’ performance differences, Satterfield said her discovery brings scientists one step closer to identifying the combination of genes or other biomarkers that could best predict how well sleep-deprived people will perform in different task environments. That knowledge could eventually lead to targeted interventions to help those less resilient to sleep deprivation. It could also be used as the basis for developing an objective, blood- or saliva-based drowsiness test for drivers.