Brain and Body

Genetic Ancestry Partially Explains Racial Sleep Differences

November 10, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Girl sleeping on a bed
Photo credit: Megan Schüirmann/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

New findings on slow-wave sleep may make it possible to develop different sleep therapies based on racial differences.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have shown a genetic basis that partially explains racial differences in slow-wave sleep — often referred to as deep sleep, consisting of the third stage of non-rapid eye movement sleep. These findings may lead researchers to create specialized sleep therapies to target people based on their genes.

The scientists analyzed a panel of 1,698 ancestry informative genetic markers, finding that greater African genetic ancestry was associated with lower amounts of slow-wave sleep in African-American adults. According to the authors of the study, African-Americans “exhibit a wide range of African genetic ancestry.” They found that the percentage of African ancestry among the study participants ranged between 10 percent and 88 percent, with a mean of 67 percent.

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Objective sleep data was gathered by polysomnography — a sleep test used to diagnose sleep disorders. It records brain waves, oxygen levels in the blood, heart rate, breathing, and eye and leg movements. Blood samples for genotyping were collected, and the researchers isolated DNA following standard protocols.

Senior study author Martica Hall, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, says that the data from this study is the first ever to show that race differences in slow-wave sleep may have a significant genetic basis.

“Although all humans have the same set of genes, variants within genes sometimes follow population specific patterns,” she says. “By identifying the specific genetic variants that influence slow-wave sleep, we can eventually develop population-specific treatment approaches and therapies for sleep.”

The root of sleeping problems is often difficult to pinpoint, as sleep patterns vary for each individual. This study is the first of its kind to link sleep differences to genetic ancestry, thus opening the door for the development of race-specific sleep therapies.


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