Sleep in a bottle

I love a good night’s sleep. I just rarely get one that’s quite as long as I’d like.

I’m not alone in that, either. Although exactly how much sleep any individual needs varies according to that individual’s age, sex, genetic makeup and other factors, studies indicate that the “normal” sleep need for most adults is between seven and eight hours a night (teenagers need more like nine, and preschoolers 11 to 13, and schoolchildren up to age 12 need 10 to 11).

According to Statistics Canada, in 1998, men averaged 8 hours of sleep a night and women 8.2, which sounds pretty good: however, 17 percent of men and 13 percent of women reported sleeping less than 6.5 hours. (Oh, and parents with children in the house reported getting less sleep than non-parents. Go figure.)

Why don’t people get enough sleep? Some people suffer from insomnia, of course, but in general we don’t sleep because we choose to do something else. Hanging out with friends. Playing computer games. Watching movies. We all have excuses for not going to bed when we know we should: in the StatsCanada study, approximately half of all adults admitted to cutting down on sleep on sleep in order to get more time out of the day.

(In this we’re following in the footsteps of Thomas Edison, who believed sleep was wasteful, unproductive time and thought the continuous illumination provided by his light bulb would revolutionize the world…which it did.)

We fight sleepiness with stimulants, ranging from the caffeine in coffee and tea and energy drinks to drugs such as amphetamines, and, more recently, modafinil (marketed in Canada as Alertec).

Now, Wired Online reports in a December 28 article, researchers have discovered that a nasal spray containing a particular brain hormone apparently cures sleepiness in sleep-deprived monkeys, with no apparent side effects.

The hormone is called orexin A. In the study, published in the December 26 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, monkeys were deprived of sleep for 30 to 36 hours. Then they were given either orexin A or a saline solution, and put through some standard cognitive tests.

The monkeys that received orexin A scored about the same on the tests as well-rested monkeys, while the monkeys that only received a saline solution showed severe cognitive impairment.

Jerome Siegel, professor psychiatry at UCLA, is one of the co-authors of the study, which the researchers conducted because Siegel had previously discovered that the absence of orexin A in the brain appears to cause narcolepsy, a disorder in which people drop off to sleep at inopportune times.

“What we’ve been doing so far is increasing arousal without dealing with the underlying problem,” Siegel is quoted as saying in the Wired article. “If the underlying deficit is a loss of orexin, and it clearly is, then the best treatment would be orexin.”

Of course, the cognitive decline brought on by sleepiness isn’t the only problem with sleep deprivation. The National Sleep Foundation says that research shows that sleep deprivation leads to increased appetite and a greater likelihood of obesity; an increased risk of diabetes and heart problems; and an increased risk for psychiatric conditions, including depression and substance abuse.

Would reducing sleepiness by altering brain chemistry alleviate these other problems? No one knows, and as Siegel himself says, “you’d have to be a fool to advocate taking this and reducing sleep as much as possible.”

In any event, don’t go rushing out to the drugstore looking for orexin A any time soon. It can take a decade for new drugs to be approved for use in humans.

Still, in a society in which “you snooze, you lose” is an axiom and being productive 24/7 is something to brag about, a drug that could eliminate the cognitive decline of sleep deprivation without side effects would be extremely popular.

Which means that you can bet pharmaceutical companies are taking note of this new study, and those human trials will be commencing soon.

In the meantime, you might try a less high-tech solution to your sleep woes:

Go to bed an hour earlier every night. Crazy, I know, but it just might work.

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