The Human Genetics of Night Owls and Early Birds
The Human Genetics of Night Owls and Early Birds

The Human Genetics of Night Owls and Early Birds

When people prefer to go to bed is linked to hundreds of variations in their genes.

Jef Akst
Jan 31, 2019


Whether you’re an early bird or a night owl is partly dependent on your genome, according to a study published this week (January 29) in Nature Communications

Scanning nearly 700,000 human genomes available through the UK Biobank and the consumer genetics testing company 23andMe and comparing the results with reported sleep preferences, an international team of researchers identified more than 350 variations associated with being a morning person. Additional analyses using the device-recorded activity patterns of more than 85,000 of these participants revealed that people who carried the most gene variants linked with being an early bird went to bed an average of 25 minutes earlier than those who carried the fewest.

The team went on to study the potential roles of these gene variants, and found that many had functions in regulating circadian rhythms. Some were active in the brain, while others were active in the retina. One of the genes participates in the body’s responses to caffeine and nicotine. But, coauthor Michael Weedon, a bioinformaticist at the University of Exeter in the UK, tells The New York Times, “the most interesting ones are the ones where we don’t know what it is.”

The researchers found links between people’s sleep preferences, or chronotypes, and their mental health, with those who identified as morning people being less likely to report having depression or schizophrenia and reporting higher levels of general well-being. But chronotype is not a simple variable, Suzanne Hood, an assistant professor of psychology at Bishop’s University in Quebec who was not involved in the study, tells CNN, and future studies should take the nuance of the phenotype into account. “It would be interesting to follow up these findings with other kinds of methods that can track sleep variables with more precision.”