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They’re criticized by their parents because they stay up too late and can’t get up for school. They’re considered lazy by co-workers and supervisors who watch them stumble in late for work. Called “night owls” for their unusual wake and sleep patterns, these individuals either adjust by finding jobs with flexible hours, or they become depressed and at odds with family members.
Daniel Kripke, M.D.
According to sleep expert Daniel Kripke, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, night owls can’t help it. They suffer from a lifelong biochemical malfunction within their body’s internal 24-hour clock called “Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome,” or DSPS.
Although it’s difficult to determine the exact number of individuals with DSPS, since many don’t seek medical treatment, physicians estimate that as much as one percent of the population may have this sleep disorder.
In clinical research now underway at UCSD, Kripke and his team are investigating the possible genetic factors involved in DSPS. Although current treatment is bright light therapy (with early morning light exposure designed to re-set the body clock), the new studies may lead to more effective, “genetically inspired treatments,” Kripke said.
“Almost all living organisms have body clocks that run at 24 hours to coordinate with a 24-hour day,” Kripke said. “Although some studies in animals have found gene variants that speed up or slow down that clock, we believe there may be many more genes involved in causing Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome.”
His research team is recruiting 200 individuals over the next three years for the study. Among those participating is 78-year-old Deborah Locke-Kahn of Hillcrest. A retired interior designer, she is unable to fall asleep until 2 or 3 a.m. and often doesn’t awake until late morning or early afternoon.
“One of my interior design specialties was bars and lounges, so that I could meet with the owners at midnight,” she said. “When my children were growing up, I needed a housekeeper who could get up with them early while I slept.”
Another study participant, 57-year-old Judy Lazar of Tierrasanta, who holds a Ph.D. in biology, said she’s always wanted to work regular hours, but can’t. She falls asleep between 3 – 6 a.m. and sometimes doesn’t begin her day until mid-afternoon.
“I’m way out of phase,” she said. “When I travel out of town with friends, we can’t share a room because my hours are too disruptive to them.”
Sixty-seven-year-old Donna Sullivan of La Costa said her sleep/wake hours have been difficult on her family; she and her husband go to bed and wake up at different hours, often three-to-four hours apart.
“When I was younger and needed to care for the children, I adapted somewhat and just got up earlier,” she said. “At my age now, I need the sleep. My body needs the rest.”
Kripke’s research assistant, 27-year-old Charles Im (who is also a night owl and a study volunteer), has drawn blood from several of the study participants. He said half the volunteers have found their night-owl hours to be a problem, while the others have learned to cope with it.
Open to men and women over age 25 who have a lifelong problem with Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome, the study involves two visits with a staff research associate, either at the volunteer’s home or in the laboratory; a blood draw and sets of paperwork. Volunteers will also wear a small wrist device to measure activity and light exposure over a two-week period, and will keep sleep logs. Financial compensation of $100 and advice from sleep experts will be made available to the study volunteers. Information is available on the web site http://nightowl.ucsd.edu to those calling 858-534-7206, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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