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10 Experiments At The Forefront Of Sleep Science

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As part of the team at Experiment.com, a crowdfunding platform for science, I get to talk to scientists all the time. I've been an insomniac and poor sleeper all my life, so I decided to run a Sleep Challenge Grant to launch a batch of sleep experiments together on the site.

Here's what I'm learning from 10 scientists at the forefront of sleep research:

Men who go to sleep late have more sex.
"Evening men," who naturally wake up later and go to sleep later, tend to have higher mating success but lower success in social settings like school or business. Dr. Christoph Randler wants to investigate whether there are clues for fitness in the sperm and saliva of these men that would be an evolutionary explanation for this phenotype.

The technology of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind might be real very soon.

Imagine a tool that targets and modifies painful memories during sleep by using pleasant or nauseating smells. A protocol called 'aversive conditioning' successfully reduced smoking in patients by pairing nauseating odors with cigarette smoke. This research group in Italy is now taking this further by testing whether presenting good and bad smells during sleep can modify a person's memory.

Having less REM sleep improves depression.
For decades, scientists have known that preventing Rapid Eye Movement sleep helps patients with depression, to the point where antidepressant drugs work by specifically disrupting or impacting REM sleep. Today, scientists have identified the neurons in the ventral medulla, the area of the brain that controls sleep, that can make REM sleep turn on or off. A new technique called optogenetics is telling us how exactly sleep impacts mood and depression. Researcher David Wu wrote more about this work in his article "To Sleep, Perchance to Dream".

Infancy is the most interesting period to study sleep and the period we know nothing about.
So much cognitive development takes place in a baby during its first year, but we've been held back in studying the relation of sleep to development simply because our tools are not built for babies. A researcher at the Infancy Studies Lab at Rutgers has been developing new mobile sensors that will fill in this gap in research.

Insects need sleep for some of the same reasons humans do.
One of the ways sleep is valuable is that it helps clear toxins in our brain. The process is not well-understood, though, and until very recently we believed it only happened in mammals. This new research builds on the finding that fly sleep also contributes to waste clearance, and delves into how the process works.

Napping during the day can reduce children's sleep at night. But if the quality of sleep is good, we should keep naps.

This researcher is investigating the controversy around whether preschool kids should be napping. While it has been shown that napping reduces the length of sleep at night, there hasn't been much research into the quality of that nighttime sleep.

Light and sound during sleep could alleviate insomnia
People with conditions like arthritis experience insomnia at higher rates. Insomnia makes the pain worse, and the pain makes the insomnia worse. Light and sound therapy while sleeping is currently a promising approach, so this researcher is mapping the brain during the therapy to see what effect it has.

Stroke victims suffer worse effects of sleep apnea

Sleep apnea, which affects 1 in 15 people, is the condition where breathing is disrupted during sleep and oxygen levels in the bloodstream drop. For stroke patients where oxygen in the brain is disrupted, this is especially bad.

Brainwave data for sleep abnormalities can be crowdsourced

Sleep spindles are discrete, intermittent patterns of brain activity observed in human EEG data. Increasingly, these oscillations are of biological interest because of their role in development, learning and neurological disorders. Some scientists have shown that crowdsourcing this data analysis can be cheaper and faster than academic experts, similar to Galaxy Zoo or FoldIt.

Children with ADHD can have better self-control with 1.5 more hours of sleep.
Pilot studies found that when healthy kids are asked to go to bed 1.5 hours earlier for one week, it can change their behavior. When given a test to measure inhibition control, children with more sleep perform better by reacting less impulsively. Extending this to children with disorders like ADHD or other learning disabilities is a major open scientific challenge.

Next week, you'll hear from four scientists who are working on sleep.