Many of us would benefit from the effects of more sleep and yet we can’t help but struggle with the time we lose to the sedentary state. Sleep is universal; it also presents a universal mystery tightly interwoven with our understanding of the brain. While scientists can’t seem to agree on why we sleep, they have deciphered much of the how and in doing so, have opened the door to a variety of technologies aimed at helping us sleep. Technologies that not only help us fall asleep faster, but that also help us glean the restorative benefits we all need with less time under the covers — effectively lengthening our waking lives.
An article at New Scientist (free registration required) details some of the research being done and technologies being developed to improve our ability to sleep. One such project funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and headed up by Chris Berka, a neuroscientist at Advanced Brain Monitoring in Carlsbad, California, aims to help people fall asleep quickly without the use of pharmaceuticals. It’s no wonder the US Department of Defense is interested in funding sleep research, soldiers must sleep in the most trying of circumstances or face the potentially disastrous ill-effects of sleep deprivation.
To understand what Berka and her team are attempting we must first understand that not all sleep is created equal. Sleep is divided up into stages based on the state of body and, more importantly, the state of brain. Stage one is the boundary between waking and sleep, usually lasting between 5 and 15 minutes. Stage two is a deeper sleep where it becomes increasingly difficult to wake the sleeper; awaking during stage two will result in a refreshed feeling. Stage two usually lasts around 20 minutes and due to it restoring fatigued muscles and replenishing alertness is perfect for daytime naps. Stage three, also known as “slow-wave sleep” is what we generally think of as deep sleep. Harder to awaken from, stage three is when a number of restorative mechanisms engage, though the connection between stage three brain activity and these mechanisms is not clear. Stage three lasts on average about 60 minutes, after which point the sleeper begins to cycle between stages, including REM or rapid eye movement sleep when our most memorable dreaming occurs.
The goal of Berka’s research is to accelerate the time it takes for someone to progress from awake to stage two. Stage one’s benefits are, at best, unclear, so speeding through it doesn’t seem to worry anyone. To this end, Berka has developed the Somneo mask, a high tech sleep mask which helps the wearer enter stage two up to 2 minutes faster than unaided. For a soldier who may only have a 1 or 2-hour sleep window, shaving precious minutes off of the time it takes to enter stage 2 may mean the difference between waking up refreshed and waking up groggy. The mask is a thick, padded band that covers the cheeks, ears and much of the head. The mask also contains a heating element around the eyes; this is because research has shown that facial warming can help people fall asleep.
“[Two minutes] might not sound like much, but it’s the same reduction we see with hypnotic drugs.”-Chris Berka, CEO of Advanced Brain Monitoring
In addition to tucking-in and heating the wearer’s face the Somneo mask’s built-in EEG monitors track the wearer’s brainwave patterns in order to identify which stage of sleep they’re in. The mask can be programmed to allow the wearer a specific amount of sleep and will only begin timing when actual sleep is detected. To ensure a pleasant awakening the mask will wake the wearer in lighter stages of sleep, and wake them early if it detects they’re entering a deep sleep cycle which is likely to go beyond the desired sleep duration. The wearer is woken with a blue light that gradually brightens, this helps to suppress melatonin, a hormone which can cause drowsiness. While the Somneo is not available to consumers, there are a number of commercially available products, such as the Zeo Sleep Manager and the Jawbone UP, which offer some similar monitoring features.
As advanced as the Somneo is, it’s mostly a passive monitoring system when it comes to sleep stages. Other technologies exist which can actually trigger changes in a person’s sleep stage. Transcranial direct current stimulation, or tDCS, is a technique involving administering a weak electrical current to a part of the brain. Using this technique researchers have been able to shift volunteers between adjacent sleep stages. Another technique, transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, can actually send subjects directly into stage three slow-wave sleep. TMS employs an electromagnet generating an electrical current which is held over the skull. Subjects who fell asleep under these conditions immediately produced the brain waves associated with stage three sleep.
While neither the Somneo mask or the old-necktie sleep mask picture above incorporate all of these technologies, it’s nevertheless exciting (and a tad disturbing) to imagine a sleep mask that does. The sleep mask of the near future will be able to send us to sleep instantly and let us program how long we’d like to spend in each sleep stage — a far cry from warm milk and counting sheep.