Sleeping in the Laboratory? Science of Sleep and Sleepy Scientists

Sleep… everybody does it – it’s a science, a disease and people love to talk about how little he or she needs it. In this short review, we will have a look at sleeping scientists, the underlying science of sleep, and neurological dysfunctions interfering with a good night’s sleep. Furthermore, we will delve into the world of sleeping aids, including the first sleep robots.

A Night at the Laboratory – In the Name of Science

A night in the lab – it happens. Every scientist eventually ends up spending a night underneath their desk or bench,  maybe even directly next to their experiment! All this to complete a vital experiment which just cannot wait. In these scenarios, even a keyboard seems like a suitable pillow for naps between PCR runs!
“During the experimentation phase of my Bachelor’s thesis, I regularly spent my nights in a pitch-black room, with only two small sources of red light. Listening to volume-enhanced electrophysiological recordings, sounding like white noise bursts, and waiting for the experiment to finish. Only to start the next two hour-long experiment to again listen to white noise. Regularly, I fell into very uncomfortable episodes of sleep on a very uncomfortable lab chair. We had to work during nights since our electrophysiology set-up was susceptible to all sorts of vibrations and interferences.” Anecdote: A. D., MSc Medical Neurosciences

Is it okay to sleep in the Lab?

Sleep Etiquette in Research Laboratories and Institutes is a difficult topic. Read to the end of this article to find an ongoing discussion about it. We would like you to comment below this ZAGENO-article with your opinion on this topic. Also, which uncomfortable positions have you slept in?

Circadian Rhythms in the Kingdoms

Most people are unaware of the fact that the human innate circadian rhythm (aka. the internal clock) is not on a 24-hour schedule. Its cycle diverges ever so slightly. Every other kingdom, whether it be; Animalia, Plantae, Fungi or Protista follow their circadian rhythms, dictated by external parameters, e.g., sunlight and temperature.
Within the established human circadian cycle, people can exhibit different chronotypes – ranging from Morningness (Lark) to Eveningness (Owl). Our chronotype may be hereditary, and switching from one to the other may be more difficult than we think. Chronotype is regulated by our internal mechanisms, not by willpower, and maybe, just maybe, we do more harm than good when we mess with our rhythms too much. There are definite patterns of brain wave activity, hormone production, cell regeneration and other biological activities linked to this daily cycle.
PER2 is a renowned regulator of circadian rhythms in mammals. A mutant of the gene was recently shown to be associated with iris formation, suggesting a link between iris function and chronotype.

True Wakefulness

Jessa Gamble explains how some participants in a recent study were able to experience “true wakefulness” when allowed to follow their natural circadian rhythm.

Beware the blue light

Light has long been known to lower secretion levels of melatonin, a critical circadian cycle regulator. There are even suggestions that long-term effects could include cancers, diabetes, depression, and obesity. However, as Harvard Health Letter states, the most significant inhibitor of melatonin secretion is blue light. This frequency of light can suppress production for twice as long and shift the circadian rhythm by twice as much, in comparison to green light.
Interestingly, most modern-day energy-efficient bulbs produce more blue light than older, incandescent lamps. Our strive for lower environmental damage, may, in fact, be causing ourselves personal harm. Potential remedies, which benefit both aspects, is changing the inner coatings of fluorescent bulbs, so to produce a warmer-colored light. For those exposed to electronics at night, or working a night shift, wearing protective glasses which block out blue light is a viable solution. Research owls just gained a new fashion accessory!

Circadian Rhythms and Man-Made Technology

Now that we are all on the same page regarding 24-hour cycles let’s explore how we disturb our already disrupted sleep cycles. Man-made light sources, in particular, lights composed of short wavelengths (blue), as explained above, are the main problem. The issue with short wavelengths also applies to smartphones; our indispensable, and constant companions. We have evolved to adapt to our natural environment; different light settings either wake us up or make us sleepy (due to the involvement of melatonin-regulated circuits). Over the course of the day, the composition of wavelengths differs but is characteristic for the time of day and season in the year. It should not be a surprise, from an evolutionary standpoint, that all beings with photosensitive receptors/eyes or skin cells counted on natural light sources to guide them through the day, night, and around the seasonal changes for millions and millions of years.

Light pollution: Not just a human problem

Not so fun fact; not only do we mess with our own circadian rhythms, but with various circadian rhythms of all species living in or next to us. Because we do not turn off our lights (e.g., street lights, motorway lights, etc.) at night, we are distracting everything around us. Light pollution is considered one of the most prominent forms of pollution, preventing half of the European population and around two-thirds of the U.S. residents from viewing the Milky Way. Moreover, we keep increasing the margin of light pollution every year, as cities continue to grow. Polluting our world with light is becoming more and more of a problem. Research is revealing that light pollution alters the behavior of plants, animals, and people; affecting sleeping, feeding, and mating.

Molecular Interactions and Behavioral Changes

In 2015, during their annual meeting, the Society for Neuroscience discussed many aspects of sleep. Regarding molecular interactions, sleep disruption can increase lipofuscin prevalence; a molecule commonly associated with advanced aging. Meanwhile, the transcription profile of human blood cells was shown to have a circadian rhythm of transcription in 6.4% of the transcriptome. However, restricted or mistimed sleep dropped this percentage down to 1%, affecting genes associated with immunity and metabolism. Those long nights in the lab are not only making you tired but also more likely to get sick!
Interestingly some lucky individuals can maintain vigilance, despite lack of sleep. Heart rate variability was a determining factor in this behavioral change; able to distinguish who is vulnerable to a drop in alertness after lack of sleep, and who is resistant.

A selection of Sleeping Disorders

Sleeping Beauty Syndrome

Sleeping Beauty syndrome, sounds like a fun thing to have, but it’s actually pretty harmful. So let’s take away the beauty and call it by its medical term Kleine–Levin syndrome. Affected individuals, mainly adolescent males, experience extended periods of sleep of 15 to 21 hours a day (hypersomnia), interrupted by short periods of hypersexuality and hyperphagia (excessive appetite). Thankfully the disease is quite rare with an occurrence of only 1 in 14 million.

REM Sleep Behavior Disorder

Dream enactment classifies as an REM Sleep Behavior Disorder (RBD), you have probably seen it in movies like Disney’s Cinderella (1950). The beloved dog Bruno acts out one of his dreams chasing the not so lovely cat, Lucifer.

In normal sleep, muscles are paralyzed during REM sleep, when you dream, so you stay safe. Humans suffering from RBD, and the loss of paralysis during otherwise intact REM-sleep, exhibit a broad spectrum of behaviors during the most vivid dreaming phase. These actions can range from simple limb twitches to more complex movements; such as unconsciously acting out dreams. These dream enactments can be violent and in some cases will result in injury to either the patient or their partner.

RBD – Indicator for Neurodegenerative Diseases

RBD can be seen as an indicator of neurodegenerative disorders. In Lady and the Tramp (1955), the dog Trusty shows signs of RBD. He dreams of chasing a criminal through the swamps, growling and sniffing around, with his eyes closed, moving his paws as if he were running, causing him to drag himself across the floor. Trusty lost his sense of smell, and later in the movie, it becomes clear that he is also losing his memory. Poor old Trusty is an excellent example of the clinical triad of RBD; hyposmia (loss of sense of smell), cognitive impairment (memory loss), and dream enactment (RBD). RBD is likely to be symptomatic in patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Lewy-body dementia.

International Classification of Sleep Disorders

You can have a look at the ICSD – International Classification of Sleep Disorders. Be aware that twitching limbs before sleep is standard behavior, known as the hypnic jerk, and does not equate to having RBD.

Gadgets for Insomniacs

Technology is quickly becoming important in many aspects of life, and sleep is no different. Two gadgets of interest include dodow and Somnox. These two devices have been developed to help regulate breathing during the transition into sleep.
Dodow utilizes a metronome in the form of dim blue light to help slow down breathing, maintaining focus on this, rather than distracting thoughts which prevent sleep. According to its creators, the technique is adapted from Pranayama yoga. Somnox, on the other hand, is fundamentally a ‘sleep robot’; which uses its own breathing mechanism to steady the breathing of its user. The huggable robot also plays soothing lullabies to helps insomniacs drift off peacefully. Both gadgets are both relatively new on the market, so it is still unclear whether they will be accepted as cures for insomnia.
Aside from physical aids, mobile apps also look to exploit potential gaps in the sleep dysfunction market. One example is Shleep, which aims to design personal sleep programs based on the needs and lifestyle of the user. The app hopes to educate sufferers of insomnia through informative video-based lectures and other digital tools.

Sleep etiquette in the laboratory?

There is a fascinating thread at StackExchange following the question: Would it be acceptable to occasionally sleep at the lab? We are very interested in your experiences and opinion and stories about sleeping in laboratory settings. You can also leave comments anonymously.

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