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Health and Fitness, In the News, Sleep, Videos

“Father of Sleep Medicine” talks with CNN about what happens when we don’t sleep well

"Father of Sleep Medicine" talks with CNN about what happens when we don't sleep well

Dement - smallA good night’s sleep is often the first thing to go when we have an important work deadline or health issue. I know this from firsthand (and recent!) experience: I let a foot injury kept me up until 4 a.m. today even though I know that cheating sleep – or getting a poor night of sleep – is bad for my health.

But is skimping out on sleep now and again really that bad? As Chief Medical Correspondent Sanjay Gupta, MD, and Stanford sleep expert William Dement, MD, PhD, explain in a recent CNN feature: yes. When we rest, our bodies go to work, Gupta explains: “When your head hits the pillow, your body doesn’t shut down. It uses that time to heal tissue, strengthen memory, even grow.”

Dement, who founded the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine in the 1970s and has devoted his career to understanding sleep, has lots of experience with patients who miss out on these benefits because they don’t sleep well – due to obstructive sleep apnea. (The disorder, he says, affects 24 percent of adult males in the U.S.) In the piece, he and Gupta discuss the risk factors, such as excess weight and large tonsils, linked to sleep apnea and what can be done to alleviate the problem.

If you have a few minutes, this video is worth a watch. Dement makes his first appearance at the 2.5-minute mark.

Previously: Stanford doc gives teens a crash course on the dangers of sleep deprivationWilliam Dement: Stanford Medicine’s “Sandman”Stanford docs discuss all things sleep, Why untreated sleep apnea may cause more harm to your health than feeling fatigued and What are the consequences of sleep deprivation?
Photo, which originally appeared in Stanford Medicine, by Lenny Gonzalez

In the News, Neuroscience, Research, Sleep, Stanford News

Stanford researcher’s work, which clarifies role of brain activity during sleep, featured on NPR

Stanford researcher's work, which clarifies role of brain activity during sleep, featured on NPR

ParviziMuch to my delight, I heard the voice of Josef Parvizi, MD, PhD, on NPR yesterday afternoon. He was discussing the results of his latest study, which showed that the brain’s activity during sleep is far from random.

“There is something that’s going on in a very structured manner during rest and during sleep,” Parvizi told NPR. “And that will, of course, require energy consumption.”

A Shots blog entry accompanying the segment describes the findings:

The team saw activity in two widely separated brain areas known to be involved in episodic memories. And the activity was highly coordinated — suggesting the different brain regions were working together to answer the questions…

“What we found,” he says, “was that the same nerve cells that were activated to retrieve memories… have a very coordinated pattern of noise.”

This explains, in part, why the brain consumes 20 percent of the body’s energy, although it constitutes only 2 percent of its weight. There are more details on the study in our press release.

Previously: New findings on exactly why our “idle” brains burn so much fuel, The brain whisperer: Stanford neurologist talks about his work, shares tips with aspiring doctors and How epilepsy patients are teaching Stanford scientists more about the brain

In the News, Mental Health, Research, Sleep

The importance of screening soldiers for sleep problems to combat mental-health conditions

The importance of screening soldiers for sleep problems to combat mental-health conditions

Watching over

A new report from the RAND Corporation suggests that treating military members’ sleep disturbances early on may be an important step in preventing serious mental-health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and traumatic brain injury.

The two-year multi-method study examined sleep-related policies and programs across the U.S. Department of Defense and surveyed almost 2,000 veterans from various branches of the military to evaluate their sleep habits. The findings emphasized the negative effects of poor sleep on soldiers’ mental health, daytime impairment and perceived operational readiness; and it outlined interventions for helping identify and prevent sleep problems for service members.

The Huffington Post reports:

The researchers recommended that the military improve screening for sleep disturbance, and develop guidelines for doctors on how to identify and treat sleep disorders in the military. Apps on mobile phones might be one new way to identify and monitor sleep problems so they do not become chronic and debilitating, the researchers said.

Although the new report focused on activity-duty troops, studies show that sleep problems are often missed in veterans as well, [Wendy Troxel, PhD, co-author of the report] said, so there is also a need to develop guidelines for treating this population. In a previous survey of 3,000 veterans, 74 percent had symptoms of insomnia, but only 28 percent had talked with their doctor about it, Troxel said.

The researchers also recommended improving policies and programs to educate military personnel about the importance of sleep, and provide guidance on how to help military members get better sleep.

Previously: Study shows benefits of breathing meditation among veterans with PTSD, The promise of yoga-based treatments to help veterans with PTSD and Using mindfulness therapies to treat veterans’ PTSD

In the News, Pediatrics, Sleep, Stanford News, Videos

Stanford doc gives teens a crash course on the dangers of sleep deprivation

Stanford doc gives teens a crash course on the dangers of sleep deprivation

Numerous studies, including a big one published in Pediatrics earlier this year, have shown that adolescents are getting less sleep than ever before. But most teens are unlikley unaware of the dangers of sleep deprivation – and that’s something that a group of Stanford clinicians is trying to change. Rafael Pelayo, MD, with the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, and colleagues recently gave a “crash course” on sleep, and the importance of getting enough, to students at nearby Menlo-Atherton High School. ABC7 captured the story in the video above.

Previously: Talking about teens’ “great sleep recession”, With school bells ringing, parents should ensure their children are doing enough sleeping, Study shows poor sleep habits as a teenager can “stack the deck against you for obesity later in life”, What are the consequences of sleep deprivation? and Want teens to eat healthy? Make sure they get a good night’s sleep

Neuroscience, Research, Sleep, Stanford News

New findings on exactly why our “idle” brains burn so much fuel

New findings on exactly why our "idle" brains burn so much fuel

1959 Cadillac

“The human brain is a greedy organ,” I wrote in my release describing a new Stanford study before elaborating:

Accounting for only 2 percent of the body’s weight, it consumes 20 percent of the body’s energy. Yet the rate at which the brain gobbles glucose (the fuel our brain cells run on) barely budges when we cease performing a physical or mental activity. Even at rest, the brain seems engaged in a blizzard of electrical activity, which neuroscientists have historically viewed as useless “noise.”

The study, which appears today in in Neuron, sheds light on why the brain paradoxically appears to exhaust so much energy in what at first glance seems akin to the idling of a car’s engine. Although you wouldn’t know it from just staring at it, the human brain is a complicated orchestra of electrical circuits constantly humming along with one another over the comparatively long distances that separate one part of the organ from another.

Over the past decade, neuroscientists using brain-imaging methods have identified dozens of distributed, collaborative clusters of brain regions working in concert and dedicated to various mental activities from solving math problems to recalling what one ate for breakfast.

Now a team led by Stanford neuroscientist Josef Parvizi, MD, PhD, has tracked the electrical activity within and between these simultaneously pulsing clusters (or, in Neurospeak, “networks”) with more precision than has previously been possible, and shown that these closely coordinated firing patterns persist even during sleep. This, in turn, may go a long way to explaining why when it comes to how fast the brain guzzles energy, the most intense thoughts, emotions or actions on our part barely budge the needle.

In their study, Parvizi and his colleagues were able to dig deeper than brain-imaging studies can usually go, because they could directly record electrical activity in selected areas in living human subjects’ brains.

The areas in question are distinct parts of a well-studied brain network called the default mode network, which is perhaps the most energetic of the dozens that have so far been discovered. That’s because the default mode network is most active when a person is at rest — lying still with eyes closed or just staring off into space  — or is retrieving an autobiographical memory (“What did I eat for breakfast?”).

Parvizi and his associates showed that the same pattern of coordinated electrical activity observed in the default mode network regions when experimental subjects were performing an autobiographical-memory task persisted even when those individuals were sound asleep.

It adds up to this, Parvizi told me: “The vast amount of energy consumption by our brain is due to its spontaneous activity at all times when we are not consciously involved in a specific task.”

It may be that, all through the night, the brain’s circuits are talking to each other, taking each other’s measure, and staying tuned for optimal function when day breaks. An idling engine puts you just one gas-pedal pump away from a fast take-off.

Previously: In a human brain, knowing a human face and naming it are separate worries, Mind-reading in real life: Study shows it can be done (but they’ll have to catch you first), We’ve got your number: Exact spot inbrainwhere numeral recognition takes place revealed, Metamorphosis: At the push of a button, a familiar face becomes a strange one and Why memory and math don’t mix: They require opposing states of the same brain circuitry
Photo by Don O’Brien

In the News, Sleep, Sports, Stanford News

Sleep = one of the keys to Golden State Warriors’ success

Sleep = one of the keys to Golden State Warriors' success


All-Star shooting guard Klay Thompson loves to take three pointers, and he’s good at it – he’s second in the league in made threes this season. (His teammate and fellow “Splash Brother” Stephen Curry holds the number one spot.) Thompson also loves to sleep, and perhaps the two aren’t unrelated. The Associated Press was there when Stanford sleep researcher Cheri Mah paid a visit to the Golden State Warriors’ locker room last week, sharing some tips with the team.

Much of Mah’s work focuses on sleep and athletic performance, and she says sleep is something that’s often put on the back burner, especially with elite teams who have grueling  schedules. From the piece:

“It’s one of the first things we sacrifice but one of the most important,” Mah said Thursday. “Changing time zones frequently, that can affect circadian rhythms. Really, it was addressing improving and optimizing sleep and recovery.”

Getting more sleep is something Thompson has no problems with. “I know how important recovery is,” he said in the article. “We play such a long season. And I love to sleep, so it was good hearing that if you want to be at optimal peak performance you’ve got to get your eight hours, or at least try to. You can’t be hanging out long hours at night.”

Previously: Superathletes sleep more, says Stanford researcherAsk Stanford Med: Cheri Mah responds to questions on sleep and athletic performance, Expert argues that for athletes, “sleep could mean the difference between winning and losing,” Why your sleeping habits may be preventing you from sticking to a fitness routine and A slam dunk for sleep: Study shows benefits of slumber on athletic performance
Photo by Chilli Head

Behavioral Science, In the News, Patient Care, Research, Sleep, Stanford News

Watson, the narcoleptic Chihuahua, demonstrates symptoms on-air

Watson, the narcoleptic Chihuahua, demonstrates symptoms on-air

Watson - 560

What’s black and white (with just a few splotches of brown), understands French, and falls asleep at feeding times? A narcoleptic Chihuahua named Watson.

Watson’s becoming accustomed to the spotlight — he made his debut here at Scope, then went on to star in a KQED blog post. But today, Watson made it on air for The California Report. The segment begins – endearingly — with Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD, cooing to Watson in French. Mignot is Watson’s human and a sleep researcher known for the discovery of the gene that causes narcolepsy in dogs. (He also directs the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine).

Although Watson isn’t officially a Stanford dog — he’s Mignot’s pet — Mignot is hoping to use the slightly shy pup to help some of his patients, particularly children, who suffer from narcolepsy.

One of the symptoms of narcolepsy is cataplexy, a sudden loss of muscle control and Watson often suffers these attacks when he’s excited or spots tasty food.

“He looks at you with these eye half-closed and its almost like he’s just telling you, “Oh, I love you,” but in fact its because he’s having a sleep attack,” Mignot said.

Previously: Narcoleptic Chihuahua joins Stanford sleep researcher’s family, Stumbling upon circadian rhythms and Does influenza trigger narcolepsy?
Photo by Emmanuel Mignot

Neuroscience, Research, Sleep, Stanford News

Stumbling upon circadian rhythms

Stumbling upon circadian rhythms

PrintIn my job as a science writer, I get to hear lots of amazing stories of discovery. In some cases, researchers have worked diligently to solve one question for decades. Others I talk to describe exciting Eureka! moments where their data suddenly made sense. But some of my favorite stories are those where a scientist is studying one thing, only to make an off-the-cuff observation that leads them in a totally new direction.

In researching circadian rhythms for the latest issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, I heard lots of this last kind of story. There are many obvious ways that circadian rhythms influence biology: our sleep cycles, the way our stomachs start to grumble for lunch at the same time every day, and how many plants close their flowers each night. But scientists are also starting to reveal lots of hidden, unexpected ways that circadian rhythms – the natural cycles in living organisms – affect us. Over just the past few years, researchers in disparate fields have made chance observations that have made them think twice about the timing of their experiments; daily circadian cycles in our bodies can affect everything from how we metabolize drugs to how our immune system acts, they’ve found.

Craig Heller, PhD, who co-directs the Stanford Down Syndrome Research Center, told me about how he was testing a new drug to improve memory in mice with Down syndrome. During the course of his experiments, he noticed that mice who received the drug at night didn’t respond the same way as mice that received a dose in the morning. It led him to start investigating the link between learning, memory, and daily sleep cycles. What he discovered doesn’t just have implications for Down syndrome, but for learning and memory more broadly.

Then, sleep researcher Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD, of the Stanford Center for Narcolepsy, walked me through the story of how he and other scientists discovered a link between the immune system and narcolepsy. It all started, he explained, after an odd epidemiological observation: narcolepsy was more often diagnosed in the spring than in the fall.

Of course, lots of what we know about how circadian clocks tick along inside our bodies, keeping time with the world around us, comes from tireless, carefully planned out benchwork, and that can’t be discredited. But some of the most surprising new links I describe in my feature come from scientists taking leaps across fields to explain something they found curious. Check out my feature, “Hacking the Biological Clock,” to learn more about what Heller, Mignot, and other scientists have found on these journeys of discovery.

Sarah C.P. Williams is a freelance science writer based in Hawaii.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine reports on time’s intersection with health, Study shows altered circadian rhythms in the brains of depressed people and Narcolepsy = autoimmune disease
Illustration by Harry Campbell

Chronic Disease, Health Policy, In the News, Pediatrics, Public Health, Sleep

Talking about teens’ “great sleep recession”

Talking about teens' "great sleep recession"

Sleepy Teen Student

We all understand, at some level, that sleep is critical to our health. But there’s a cultural undercurrent that belies that understanding: We tend to glorify the go-getters who can survive on four or five hours of sleep, lauding their productivity and drive. Numerous studies have shown that Americans of all ages – kids, teens, and adults – are not getting enough sleep.

More and more, researchers are warning that lack of sleep can damage our long-term health. Just yesterday, Rafael Pelayo, MD, with the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, was on KQED’s Forum radio program to discuss a new study looking at some alarming trends in teen sleep habits. The study, titled “The Great Sleep Recession” was published this week in the scientific journal Pediatrics. It showed that over the past 20 years, teens have been getting less sleep. Girls, minority teens, teens in urban areas and of low socioeconomic status were less likely to get at least seven hours of sleep than male, white teens. What’s more, minority teens and low SES teens were likely to report they thought they got enough sleep.

During the show, Pelayo spoke about our relationship with sleep and the challenges of sticking to a “sleep budget”:

When I read the title [of the study] it made me think of Bill Dement, who talks – at Stanford – about a sleep debt and not having enough total sleep. And a sleep debt has been growing and accumulating in people who have used sleep as something as optional in their lives. These students are… modeling after their parents, who are not getting enough sleep… But in the kids, it’s a particularly hard problem for them, they feel pressure to not get enough sleep.

Pelayo went on to say that parents and teens tend to prioritize other things, like homework, over sleep – but what they should be doing is setting aside a certain amount of time for sleep. “If the homework doesn’t get done, it doesn’t get done. They can’t make homework more important than sleep,” he said.

That last statement is a pretty radical suggestion, but if we are to avoid the fall-out from our bad sleep habits, radical changes may be the only solution.

Previously: With school bells ringing, parents should ensure their children are doing enough sleeping, Stanford docs discuss all things sleep, Study shows poor sleep habits as a teenager can “stack the deck against you for obesity later in life” and What are the consequences of sleep deprivation?
Photo by Alberto Vacarro

Sleep, Stanford News

Narcoleptic Chihuahua joins Stanford sleep researcher’s family

Narcoleptic Chihuahua joins Stanford sleep researcher's family

Watson the dog

Meet Watson, the narcoleptic chihuahua. He’s just like any other pampered pup, except he collapses when he’s excited, thanks to his narcolepsy. I enjoyed a demonstration of Watson’s special skills last week, when I visited Stanford sleep researcher Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD.

Mignot discovered the gene that triggers narcolepsy in dogs more than a decade ago, and before getting Watson he had recently lost his narcoleptic companion, Bear, a black Belgian schipperke who would swoon over broccoli. (For a lovely elegy to Bear, check out this KQED piece, including video.)

Still heartbroken, Mignot wasn’t in the market for a new dog. And certainly not for a chihuahua.

But a phone call from a breeder who had an unadoptable, sleepy dog, led to a visit to Vermont – and before long, Watson arrived. Now, Mignot is smitten, cooing to the squirmy dog in his native French. I detailed the story in the current issue of Inside Stanford Medicine.

Mignot uses Watson to demonstrate the effects of an cataplectic attack to children who are suffering from the disease. (Watson’s entertaining performance can calm frightened patients, Mignot told me.) In my piece I outlined what happened when Watson was offered a chunk of pork (one of his triggers) last week: “Watson took a big sniff and staggered backwards, struggling to ward off the attack that was paralyzing his muscles — pushing him toward sleep in just seconds. He recovered slightly, climbing to his feet and lunging for the food.”

Watson is particularly susceptible to grass-fed filet mignon, Whole Foods roast beef and new toys. He also collapses for joy when Mignot returns home from work, Mignot told me.

Interestingly, the causes of narcolepsy in humans and dogs may differ:

In humans, narcolepsy is caused when the immune system attacks certain neurons in the brain. These neurons produce a peptide called hypocretin that helps promote wakefulness and inhibits dreaming. Some dogs have that type of narcolepsy as well, although others have a genetic form that stems from a mutation in the hypocretin peptide receptor gene. Watson is a family pet and has not undergone any kind of genetic testing, so Mignot doesn’t know what type of narcolepsy he has.

Previously: Narcolepsy=autoimmune disease, Stanford center launches Huffington Post blog on the “very mysterious process” of sleep and Studying pediatric sleep disorders an “integral part” of the future of sleep medicine 
Photo by Becky Bach

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