According to sleep experts, about one in 1,000 people actually is a "short sleeper" -- he or she can function at an optimum level on a few hours a night. And this ability seems to be genetically linked. So scientists are trying to find the genes that regulate the need for sleep, specifically looking for a "short-sleeper gene" that they can use as a guide to genetically tweak the rest of us into short sleepers. There's also sleep-gene research that focuses on a genetic mutation found in a particular type of fruit fly. This fruit fly needs about one-third the amount of sleep that every other type of fruit fly needs. The mutation causes interruptions in the transportation of potassium through cell membranes. Scientists note that in humans suffering from Morvan's syndrome, defects in the brain's potassium system leads to an inability to sleep. So it appears that messing with the brain's potassium channels by way of a pharmaceutical or gene therapy could be a very effective way of promoting wakefulness.
Of course, wakefulness has its downsides. Before we can be happily, eternally awake, science will have to address the fact that prolonged sleep deprivation causes sickness, delirium and death.
Sleep is not something human beings can just give up without consequences. Much of the sleep-elimination research is funded by the military, which has good reason to find a way to neutralize the effects of sleep deprivation: battle conditions. Soldiers, especially those in special ops units like the SEALs or the Green Berets, may have to go three or four days with almost no sleep and still function as if their lives depended on it, which they pretty much do. The military has tested modafinil extensively on pilots, basically keeping them awake for about two days on repeated doses modafinil and intermittently sending them up to fly a fighter jet. The results have been pretty good, although the researchers doubt modafinil can ward off drowsiness, disorientation, slowed judgement and poor reflexes once you pass the 48-hour mark. For the time being, people can only stay awake so long without falling apart, even on the current miracle drug.
Most of us don't have jobs that require us to save the world without a good night's rest, but the culture of productivity has too much momentum to stop its march toward a 48-hour day. As workplaces become increasingly international, work weeks regularly pass the 80-hour mark and more and more drive-thrus stay open for the 3 a.m. crowd, we can all look forward to a future that frees us from our biological urge to rest on a 24-hour cycle. Even sleep advocates see the shift as inevitable. In 10 or 20 years, sleep will be dispensable, artificial and controllable. Much in the way hormone-based birth control pills can now make a woman's period last exactly three days, occur on a quarterly basis or disappear altogether until she wants it back, science is separating sleep from the inconvenience of nature.
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