From Sleep Review: "A team of researchers at MIT has moved a step closer to being able to produce natural sleep patterns. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers describe how they were able to trigger a period of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep in mice, using a technique that shines light directly on mouse neurons."
In a fascinating article for Aeon magazine, Jessa Gamble takes a surprisingly upbeat look at the array of sleep-enhancing, sleep-curtailing and sleep-eliminating technologies that are currently being developed by scientists, the military and commercially-minded "techno-pioneers". The latest tools for mastering somnolence include the "Somneo Sleep Trainer" mask, which screens out ambient noise and carries a heating element around the eyes; "transcranial direct-current stimulation" (tDCS) technology, which combats insomnia but also helps to consolidate sleep; and "transcranial magnetic stimulation" (TMS), which may be able to "launch us into deep sleep at the flick of a switch." Should we welcome this brave new world of sleep-conquering gadgetry? Gamble certainly thinks so. "[A] life lived at 150% may be within our grasp," she concludes. "Are we brave enough to choose it?"
An article from the LiveScience website speculates on what life would be like if scientists were to develop a "cure" for sleep. Reassuringly, if unsurprisingly, the piece swiftly concludes that things would be worse both on a personal level (health, relationships and well-being would suffer) and at a social/economic level (sales of pillows and duvets would plummet). Probably the most interesting thread in the article is the distinction it draws between busyness and genuine productivity; in a world without sleep, it seems that we'd have more of the former and less of the latter. All of which might lead us to ask a new question: not "What would it be like to live in a world without sleep?" but "What would it be like to live in a world that didn't need to instrumentalize sleep in the name of productivity?".
"The upshot is that, for any young student who wants to do better — in school, in sports, in music or even in the social whirl (yes, that’s learning too) — knowing the science of sleep will help them respect slumber for what it is: learning consolidation. "
A transcript of a fascinating debate between two eminent sleep scientists, Robert Stickgold and Daniel Kripke, on the question of whether we need more sleep. Stickgold spells out the damaging consequences of "getting less than the eight hours of sleep your body is asking for," whilst Kripke, who focuses on the correlations between oversleep and poor health, wonders why eight hours has been established as the "norm" for healthy sleep. Why not seven, or nine? And should the figure be the same for everyone? He also suspects that the sleeping-pill industry has played a significant role in promoting the perception that we need (to buy) more sleep.
The BBC website reports on remarkable new research on the processing powers of the sleeping brain. A team led by the neuroscientist Sid Kouider of the Ecole Normal Superieure found that the sleeping brain can accurately assign words into simple categories (eg 'animal' or 'object'). Koudier also suggests that we can perform calculations while we fall asleep, and "continue to identify those calculations as right or wrong during a snooze."
"We don't like to call it suspended animation," says Samuel Tisherman, the surgeon who is co-ordinating Department of Defense-funded research at the UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh on techniques to freeze trauma victims in the hope of keeping them alive. But reports on his research, such as this one in the Independent and this one in The Economist, have inevitably played up the sci-fi associations of "therapeutic hypothermia." The Independent's article is illustrated with an image from The Empire Strikes Back of a cryogenically frozen Han Solo; the Economist, meanwhile, goes with one of Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo emerging from hibernation in the sleep pods at the beginning of Ridley Scott's Alien. For all Tisherman's reservations, it's perhaps not so surprising that science fact occasionally needs to take a detour through science fiction before it can be made intelligible to a non-specialist audience. But we might also pause a moment to speculate on why this state of prolonged artificial somnolence -- call it hypersleep, suspended animation or cryogenic freezing -- looms so large in some of our most well-known space operas. What cultural fantasies might be encoded in the images of hibernating spacemen and -women that float so eerily through the science-fiction imagination? Anyone interested in these questions could do a lot worse than read the following post from Brian Baker's very fine (SF) 365 blog.
Research by scientists at Harvard Medical School, reported in today's Telegraph, shows that astronauts "suffer serious levels of sleep deprivation," averaging in the region of six hours per night (the average American adult gets seven). The effects of microgravity, and the fact that astronauts orbiting the earth will see the sun rise sixteen times per "day," are among the chief culprits for this poor sleep quality. And it has to be said that onboard sleeping conditions can hardly be conducive to the kind of sleep that astronauts might enjoy on terra firma. Here is footage of the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield (famed for his rendition of Bowie's "Space Oddity" on the International Space Station in May 2013) securing himself in his "sleep pod" -- a sort of man-sized baby-grow suspended in what looks like a padded confessional -- and "floating/in a most peculiar way."
The Daily Telegraph reports the discovery, by scientists working at the Centre for Applied Genomics in Philadelphia, that people carrying the gene variant "p.Tyr362His" are able to function on fewer than five hours' sleep per night. This variant has already been christened the "Thatcher gene", in honour of the former British PM's reputed ability to get by on just four hours' sleep per night. The article also quotes Charles Moore, Thatcher's authorized biographer, on the mythology that has grown up around her sleeping habits: "she wanted to show she didn't need much sleep. In fact she needed more than she said. It was part of her desire...to beat the men."
A team of researchers led by Dr Christoph Nissen of the University Medical Centre, Freiburg, have been studying sleeping patterns in a Stone Age-style environment. Five volunteers spent two months in a settlement in southern Germany, living in huts, gathering their own food, and sleeping on brushwood and furs. They had no electricity, phones, running water, torches or candles. According to data collected from their sleep-tracking armbands, the participants slept an average of 1.8 hours more each night than they ordinarily would have done. According to Nissen and his team, whose findings have now been published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, these observations provide "evidence for the long-held belief that the absence of modern living conditions is associated with an earlier sleep phase and prolonged sleep duration."