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Over the years I've heard many claims of the ability to have very little sleep every day, sometimes including weekends and vacation, and be highly functional at work. Most recently these claims showed up on the Personal Productivity SE both in answers and comments. My intuition tells me that at least some claims like this will be boasting, but I don't think that it's sufficient to reject the possibility just because I don't work this way.

Looking at the article for sleep debt seems to point to controversy.

Are some people really just wired to sleep very little and work very hard without penalty?

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Yes, they are called short sleepers and they are the subject of ongoing research.

The Transcriptional Repressor DEC2 Regulates Sleep Length in Mammals

"We have identified a mutation in a transcriptional repressor (hDEC2-P385R) that is associated with a human short sleep phenotype." -Ying-Hui Fu et al.

Some people really are just wired to run on much less sleep. The researchers identified a gene related to short sleep in two humans and exported it to mice for study. The paper makes no mention of ill health effects, which leaves open the possibility that cardiovascular effects mentioned by Oddthinking apply to genetically short sleepers. Assessing performance differences quantitatively would be difficult because of the gene's rarity. The content of the study and various news reports, however, show that the scientists view these individuals as normal to above average.

Some news coverage of the discovery:

A CNN article from March 12, 2011.

A Wall Street Journal article and NPR article came a little later. More short articles are easily found on this subject about this time.

A summary of efforts underway at UCSF:

"Familial Natural Short Sleepers have a behavioral trait in which they have a lifelong tendency to sleep only 4 – 6 hours per night. These individuals awaken refreshed and energetic and experience this short sleep pattern even when they are on vacation and relatively free of obligations.

We have identified a mutation in a transcriptional repressor (hDEC2-P384R) that is associated with a human short sleep phenotype. Activity profiles and sleep recordings of transgenic mice carrying this mutation showed increased vigilance time and less sleep time than control mice in a zeitgeber time and sleep deprivation-dependent manner. These mice represent a model of human sleep homeostasis that provides an opportunity to probe the effect of sleep on human physical and mental health."

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    "Only 4-6 hours"? That seems like the normal sleep cycle of almost everybody on my inner circle - family and close friends. – T. Sar Nov 16 '15 at 19:18
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A meta-analysis of sleep studies suggest both "too little" sleep is associated with stroke risk, while "too much" sleep is associated with heart disease and stroke risks:

Francesco P. Cappuccio, Daniel Cooper, Lanfranco D'Elia, Pasquale Strazzullo and Michelle A. Miller, Sleep duration predicts cardiovascular outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies Eur Heart J (2011) 32 (12): 1484-1492.doi: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehr007

In their conclusion, they state:

Currently, there is no evidence that sleeping habitually between 6 and 8 h per day in an adult is associated with harm and long-term health consequences. However, sleeping 9 h or more per night may represent a useful diagnostic tool for detecting subclinical or undiagnosed co-morbidity. People reporting consistently sleeping 5 h or less per night should be regarded as a higher risk group for cardiovascular morbidity and mortality.

In the results they explain a little more of the robustness of these results:

In the pooled analysis, short duration of sleep was associated with a greater risk of developing or dying of stroke (RR 1.15, 1.00–1.31, P = 0.047) with no evidence of publication bias (P = 0.30) and no heterogeneity between studies (I2= 0%, Q = 4.34, P = 0.50) (Figure 2A).

In the pooled analysis, short duration of sleep was weakly and not significantly associated with a greater risk of developing or dying of total CVD (RR 1.03, 0.93–1.15, P = 0.52) with no evidence of publication bias (P = 0.46) and no heterogeneity between studies (I2= 0%, Q = 3.42, P = 0.97) (Figure 3A).

This is evidence of correlation, not causation. Some confounding factor might affect both sleep and stroke risk.

I have not attempted to demonstrate personal productivity effects or over all mortality risk. I have just to shown that the short sleepers don't get by completely "without penalty"

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    So this studies the normal case but the question was explicitly asking for special cases (if they exist, and news reports suggest they do). With special cases I don’t mean all those burnout candidates but some rare people who (allegedly) sleep less than three hours a night and are still high-functioning, stress-free and apparently healthy individuals. – Konrad Rudolph Jan 26 '12 at 17:36
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    It isn't enough to say "This person didn't eventually die of heart disease, therefore they were one of the healthy ones." In order to make this falsifiable, you need some way to distinguish this (alleged) sub-group beforehand. Otherwise, an individual claiming that they don't need sleep would have no way of knowing. – Oddthinking Jan 26 '12 at 20:35

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