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May 7, 2018 1:30 PM

Unraveling the Mystery of Sleep

credit: Kimberley Johnson

“Honestly, no one really knows why we sleep,” begins Jeff Anderson, MD, PhD, associate professor in Radiology at University of Utah Health. “It is one of the biggest mysteries left for us to tackle in science.”

Clearly sleep is beneficial.

Conventional wisdom holds that by powering down every night, the brain can file experiences into long-term memories as well as declutter the junk of the day. What sleep actually does for the brain and body remains unclear.  Anderson teamed up with Paula Williams, PhD, associate professor in Clinical Psychology at University of Utah, to address these fundamental questions by studying short sleepers, folks who report regularly getting less than six hours of sleep every night yet do not report any negative effects.

While not everyone hits the recommended sleep target of seven to nine hours a night, continued lack of sleep has been linked to cognitive impairment and places a person at risk for mood disturbance, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. Most large-scale sleep studies rely on self-reported information that is not terribly reliable and does not address variation in sleep or perceived sleep-related dysfunction.

“I am interested in how personality predicts both how people sleep and how insufficient sleep makes us feel,” Williams said. “It is hard to make the case for large-scale studies that focus on individual differences when we lack sufficient evidence or large literature to back it up.”

As the pool of funding available for scientific research shrinks, researchers often find it hard to secure money to pursue new ideas.

Enter the Neuroscience Initiative.

The Initiative aims to build an integrated academic environment to develop and support collaboration across disciplines and between clinicians and researchers. To accomplish this task, it offers a seed grant program to provide the initial funding to launch new, innovative projects to tackle research on neuroscience-based discovery.

The quest for initial funding brought Williams and Anderson together, each tackling sleep-related questions from different perspectives.

“This seed grant helped us get new ideas off the ground to pursue these important questions.” Anderson said.

Their initial collaboration examined activation patterns of the brain of short sleepers in the resting state. The researchers identified their subjects through the large-scale Human Connectome Project database. The results were publishedin the journal Brain and Behavior in 2016.

According to Williams, their initial findings show that short sleepers produce a distinct brain deactivation pattern. When put in a low stimulation environment, the brain images of these patients suggest that they drift off. Williams hopes that this ongoing research program will answer key questions about individual differences in the need for sleep. 

“One could argue that the brain is one of the final frontiers in medicine,” said Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, PhD, Director of Neuroscience Initiative. “The Neuroscience Initiative allows our physicians and researchers to pioneer new treatments, approaches, and techniques to improve health care.” 

A renewal of the seed grant has allowed the research team to beginrecruiting participants for a new short sleeper study. During the first phase of the study, the participant will complete questionnaires on sleep, personality, and mood, as well as wear a watch-sized recorder and complete a daily sleep diary for two weeks. During the second phase, the participant will complete a resting-state assessment and perform a variety of cognitive tasks while researchers monitor brain wave recordings, cardiac functioning, and blood pressure in the laboratory.

“From early data, it seems some people don’t need as much sleep, because they can complete some of the tasksof sleep when they are awake,” Anderson said. “We want to bring people into the lab and actually measure how much they are sleeping, which could speak to why we sleep in the first place.”

To participate in this research, visit the Restoration and Stress Laboratory website to see if you qualify.

Williams and Anderson are joined in this work by Brian Curtis, MS, doctoral student in Clinical Psychology, and Chris Jones, MD, PhD, professor in Neurology at U of U Health.

The Neuroscience Initiative was launched by the University of Utah to take steps towards alleviating the devastating effects of brain disorders. The initiative was created with a goal of deepening the medical community’s understanding of the brain in disease and in health and transforming this knowledge into innovative solutions for improved patient care. Synergy between the Neuroscience Initiative and national efforts ensures that outcomes from the Neuroscience Initiative will positively influence not only Utahns, but also patients worldwide.