A new version of the Great British Sleep Survey has recently been launched online by scientists at the University of Oxford working in association with the sleep improvement programme, Sleepio. This online questionnaire is open to all, and gives respondents an 'overall sleep score' (ie a mark out of 10 for overall sleep quality); it also offers feedback on the effects of our time schedules, lifestyles, moods/states of mind and medical histories on our quality of sleep -- and vice versa.
New research by scientists at New York University School of Medicine and Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School shows how the brain forms new connections between cells during sleep. "Finding out sleep promotes new connections between neurons is new," says Professor Wen-Biao Gan of NYU. "[N]obody knew this before."
The National Sleep Foundation (U.S.) today announced its new official journal, Sleep Health, which aspires to being "the premier journal serving the scientific and academic research fields dedicated to better understanding the health benefits of sleep."
An article on the BBC News website about the potentially disastrous health effects of "living against" one's body clock. Oxford Professor Russell Foster observes that "We are the supremely arrogant species; we feel we can abandon four billion years of evolution and ignore the fact that we have evolved under a light-dark cycle."
An article by Maria Konnikova in the New York Times provides an informative overview of recent work on sleep's role in our "brain's physiological maintenance." As reported in Sleep Cultures ("We sleep to clean our brains"), a team led by Maiken Nedergaard at the University of Rochester medical school have proposed that the sleeping brain is cleared of its daily build-up of toxins and celluar waste by what they call the "glymphatic system" -- a "network of channels that clear[s] out toxins with watery cerebrospinal fluid."
Konnikova contextualizes her discussion with some interesting reflections on the function and history of sleep. She begins by noting, as many have done before her, that sleep is, on the face of it, an enormous -- and quite possibly dangerous -- waste of time. Here she echoes Allan Rechtschaffen's famous observation that, if sleep serves no absolutely vital purpose, then it is the greatest mistake evolution ever made. Happily, the notion of sleep as a cerebral clean-up operation, one that could not be performed while the brain is awake and attending to other matters, provides this apparently passive state with just such a sense of purpose. Indeed, the striking metaphors that Konnikova uses to describe sleep -- she calls it our "mental janitor" or "neural housekeeper" -- are indicative of the extent to which we tend to value sleep only inasmuch as it can be re-imagined as a form of labour. And if sleep is a kind of work, then, like all labour, it can be performed more efficiently. Konnikova ends the article by speculating about the possibility of new drugs that will "promote the enhanced cleaning power of the sleeping brain in a brain that is fully awake." Which is to say that at present sleep has a vital job to do, but its employment prospects are precarious; it may be only a matter of time before its cleaning duties are outsourced to wakefulness.
New research by Professor Maiken Nedergaard of the University of Rochester, New York, suggests that the function of sleep is to flush out the 'molecular detritus' that builds up in the brain during the day. Nedergaard is quoted in the Guardian as saying that her research may pave the way for drugs that reduce the need for sleep, 'because it's so annoying to waste so much time sleeping'.
In an article in Cabinet magazine entitled 'Bodies at Rest', Tony Wood gives a fascinating overview of the fantasies of sleep that flourished in the Stakhanovite culture of Stalinist Russia: http://cabinetmagazine.org/issues/24/wood.php
Central to his account is a scheme drawn up by the celebrated avant-garde architect Konstantin Melnikov for the 'Sonata of Sleep', a huge new dormitory building on the outskirts of Moscow, whose temperature-controlled atmosphere, soothing background sounds and gently rocking mechanized beds would 'instantly relax the most overwrought veteran of the metropolis'. Sadly, this magnificent monument to sleep was never built. Curiously enough, however, Melnikov's plan for an architecture of sensory immersion caught the imagination of Samuel Rothafel and John D. Rockefeller Jr when they visited Russia in search of inspiration for what would become Radio City Music Hall. It is odd to realise that the blueprint for this neon-drenched temple of American popular culture has its origins in the unfulfilled dreams of a Soviet architect.