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June 19, 2013

Sleep is the best cognitive enhancer

The Canadian Charger

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Up until recently, stimulants have been the main pharmaceutical fix for sleeping, but these drugs have a temporary effect, followed by exhaustion.

In a recent edition of the CBC radio show The Current, hosted by Anna Maria Tremonti, Science writer Jessa Gamble, author of The Siesta and the Midnight Sun: How Our Bodies Experience Time, discusses the changing nature of sleep, and why less, but higher quality sleep is something to aspire to.

“Other pharmaceutical products, which enhance your slow sleep, which is the restorative phase, which makes you ready to learn the next day, these are what drug companies are developing to help people be more refreshed from the sleep that they do get.”

She said the US military is conducting research because it's interested in allowing personnel to stay up longer and take longer shifts - often the pilots have to stay up for two days on end on missions.

But so little research on sleep is being done on the civilian front.

After acknowledging that stimulants are not the answer because they don't substitute for sleep, they just hold it off and Ms. Gamble said it's only recently that some really good ideas have come out as to why we sleep and what it is that our brain is doing while we're sleeping.

“However, most of the application is being done by the military but the basic research is being done by universities around the world.”

Ms. Gamble said U.S. military sleep trainers, make use of natural sleep hygiene techniques such as total darkness, when you're sleeping and blue light when you wake up.

“It's something they make use of for troops who only have 20 minutes or two hours at a time. It's a mask; it warms your cheeks, which helps you fall asleep faster. You're trying to skip past stage one sleep - which isn't restorative - straight down to the stage two sleep.

Other, more intrusive technologies, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation, have actually produced positive results, Ms. Gamble said.

“With transcranial magnetic stimulation, they've actually been able to induce slow-wave sleeping, so they flip a switch on the sort of helmet and it induces slow-wave pulses and people get the restorative sleep right away. They only use it for 20 minutes or so but they show the results of it when they wake up, on cognitive tests because sleep is the best cognitive enhancer we know of, so it's intelligence issue as well. ``

Meanwhile, Matthew Wolf-Meyer, the author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine, and Modern American Life, said he's not convinced that less can be more when it comes to sleep. He cites some negative effects that come from not getting enough sleep.

“If we're operating on very little sleep for long periods of time there's all sorts of negative effects (there are natural limits on how little sleep we can get) associated with that, many Americans are getting far less sleep than they should be getting and one of the results of it is the obesity epidemic, people offset their lack of sleep with high caloric intakes.”

Ms. Gamble said it's not about the amount of sleep: it’s about quality and intensity and efficiency of, so that's what we've got to be working on.

“If we accept that people are sleeping less nowadays we just try to make it enough, I think that’s more productive than trying to alter the behaviour and say you need to sleep more.  We're not going to.

However, Mr. Wolf-Meyer said that despite a century of research, we still have a long way to go to understand how sleep affects us.

“Our basic understanding about what sleep is and what it does - we're a hundred years into modern sleep science and we still don't have a clear idea of what sleep is and what it does. We don't have a clear sense about what alertness is and what wakefulness is. These things are often defined against one another. Until we really fund a lot of basic research on sleep and its variations and what it's actually doing to our bodies over the life course, we really have severe limitations on developing new technologies that will be consistently useful.”

Ms. Gamble said there have been breakthroughs in sleep research, but we need more.

“The idea that when our brains are learning throughout the day they form these strengthened connections; and then sleep forms to break down all of those connections equally, so relatively you still have that learning ability. Then when you wake up you're all refreshed with these weaker connections that you can then strengthen through your memories again; and that to me is just a breakthrough way of thinking and one that, we've just been stalled out with the why question for so long, and I think some of the answers are coming to the fore through neuro-imaging technology and we need to be funding basic research here and looking into the biology of it before getting into technology which can't go much beyond the science.“

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