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Designing the next generation of sleep devices

Past data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 30 percent of American workers don't get enough sleep, increasing their risk of stoke, obesity and other chronic diseases. Recognizing that there are times when it's not possible to get the recommended seven to nine hours of shut-eye each night, such as those experienced by soldiers in combat or parents with a newborn, a group of researchers are developing new technology that could allow us to pack a good night's sleep into a few hours.

As a recent New Scientist story (registration required) explains, this next generation of sleep devices could aid the sleep deprived, help in treating mental-health conditions and even potenially extend our lifespan. Writer Jessa Gamble describes one prototype funded by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and being developed at Carlsbad, Calif.-based Advanced Brain Monitoring:

[Researchers] designed a device they call the Somneo mask, a thick, padded band that covers the cheeks, ears and much of the head. It carries a heating element around the eyes, piggybacking on research that shows facial warming sends people to sleep. In so doing, the mask fast-tracks the wearer through the stage 1 on-ramp, which seemingly has few inherent benefits, to enter stage 2 more quickly - albeit by only 2 minutes. "This might not sound like much, but it's the same reduction we see with hypnotic drugs," says [Chris Berka, CEO of Advanced Brain Monitoring] such as zolpidem, which is used to treat insomnia.

More importantly, the mask's built-in EEG monitors any changes in sleep stage. Program it to allow you exactly 20 minutes of sleep, and it will start counting only when it detects actual sleep. Don't want to wake up groggy? If you are approaching stage 3 but don't have time for a full sleep cycle, the mask will trip an alarm. Not just any alarm: the mask contains a blue light that gradually brightens, suppressing the sleep hormone melatonin to help you hit the ground running.


Researchers are just beginning to find evidence of complicated connections between sleep and, for example, mental health and ageing. "People with depression have sleep patterns that look nothing like the cycles of healthy sleepers," says Berka. They spend more time in REM and stage 1 sleep during an average night. Use [transcranial direct current stimulation] to nudge them into a healthy pattern, she says, and it might be possible to ameliorate the symptoms.

The device won't be in bedrooms anytime soon, but we can still dream of a day when technology give us a fast track to a blissful rest.

Previously: Study estimates Americans’ insomnia costs nation $63 billion annually, Stanford sleep expert offers evaluation of science behind one sleep device, CDC report highlights the dangers of sleep deprivation and Sleep deprivation more common in the U.S. than Europe
Photo by Francisco de Souza junior

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