Sleep Research in the U.K. is Working Late
by Professor Jim Horne
Loughborough University

The main sleep research center in the U.K. is based at Loughborough University, in Leicestershire, central England. Their sleep work , so to speak, has earned them an international reputation and covers a variety of areas, ranging from the fundamental problems of what is sleep for and how much do we need, to more applied research into sleep- related vehicle accidents and the effects of aircraft noise on the sleep of people living around the major UK airports.

The center also undertakes some clinical research covering schizophrenia, depression and conditions of excessive daytime fatigue such as the chronic fatigue syndrome myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME).

For many years this center has been studying the functions of sleep, mainly via the effects of sleep deprivation. The organ most affected by lack of sleep, and seemingly most in need of sleep, is the cerebral cortex. To be more specific, it is the frontal area of the cortex (comprising over 30% of the cerebrum) which is the most active part of the waking cortex and is the first to start faltering during sleep loss.

This area of the brain is responsible for directing and sustaining attention, preventing distraction, planning many aspects of behaviour (including speech), working (short term) memory, and innovative and flexible thinking.

Sleep deprivation impairs the ability to comprehend a rapidly changing situation, increases the likelihood of distraction, makes us think more rigidly and less flexibly, perseverate more, and be less able to produce innovative solutions to complex problems. Sleep deprivation leads to a reduced vocabulary, leading to stilted conversations, shorter sentences, and a greater use of cliches. Most people working through a night without sleep will experience at least some of these effects.

Frontal Cortex
Interestingly, certain forms of schizophrenia are associated with malfunctions of the frontal cortex, and coincidentally or otherwise, these symptoms are similar to those of sleep deprivation in normal people. As the Loughborough Center points out, sleep deprivation in normal people may provide a "model" for schizophrenia.

Heavy exercise can lead to increases in the deepest form of sleep, and one school of thought believes this to be evidence favoring sleep having a major role in promoting muscle repair. But the center has shown through a series of novel experiments that this sleep effect is not caused by the exercise itself, but by the raised brain (and body) temperature accompanying the exercise. This they have shown by keeping the exercising person cool, which prevents the sleep effect, while on the other hand, it can be produced simply by sitting in a bathtub of warm water. All of this has nothing to do with muscle recovery.

Most of us, if we so wish, can easily sleep more than our usual amount. Many sleep researchers, particularly in the United States, assume that this extra sleep is necessary. The center argues against this and have provided supporting experimental evidence to show that the extra sleep is largely superfluous. Inasmuch that we can eat more than we need, so can we sleep more than we need. In fact, taking too much sleep can be counterproductive, creating feelings of excessive fatigue and being "worn out". This may well have a bearing on the fatigue disorder ME, where sufferers tend also to sleep excessively.

Immediate Elation
In contrast and for reasons that are still not clear, restricting sleep to about four hours a night can produce an immediate elation in mood that can be of great benefit to people who are clinically depressed. Although sleepy, they are much happier, but the effect disappears when sleep returns to its normal length. This is another area of investigation for the Loughborough center.

There are distinct differences between people in the time of day when their body clocks make them feel most alert, with the more extreme cases being either morning or evening "types" ("larks" and "owls").

The center developed methods for measuring this phenomenon. Interestingly, evening types are more tolerant to shift work and seem to cope better with "jet lag". A related area of interest concerns the natural early afternoon "trough" in alertness, experienced by many people, and making them more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol and boredom in the early afternoon. Alcohol is about twice as potent then, compared with the early evening when the body clock has a daily alertness peak.

The center's further work in this area concerns vehicle accidents. From accident surveys conducted in conjunction with many UK police forces the center has recently reported that sleepiness accounts for 15% to 20% of serious accidents on monotonous roads in the UK, especially on motorways.

Practical Methods
Using a realistic car simulator, the center is conducting laboratory studies of drivers falling asleep at the wheel, and are evaluating practical methods for the driver to overcome sleepiness. The work has various medico-legal implications, especially the extent to which drivers who fall asleep at the wheel are aware of being sleepy beforehand.

As part of a study into the effects of aircraft noise, the center has undertaken one of the largest investigations ever conducted on sleep in the home. Four hundred subjects had their sleep recorded continuously throughout a total of 6400 nights, and over 6.5 million items of data were collected.

Nocturnal body movements, indicative of brief awakenings, were synchronised against outdoor noise, especially from aircraft. In comparison with bed partners and small children, both of whom were major causes of adult sleep disturbance, aircraft noise had relatively little effect. A small minority of people appeared to be more noise sensitive, and they form another focus of investigation for the center's ongoing work.

Can't sleep? Surfing late into the night? Have a question?

Sleep Research Laboratory
Department of Human Sciences
Loughborough University of Technology
Loughborough, Leicestershire, LE11 3TU
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 1509 223004
Fax: +44 1509 610724

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