Skip to content

Rolling through campus and talking sleep with famed researcher William Dement

Renowned sleep researcher William Dement, MD, PhD, is maneuvering his way in his "Sleep and Dreams Mobile" through the Stanford University campus, en route to the Jerry House, site of some of the early, landmark studies in sleep. The house, a sprawling Mediterranean-style dormitory, housed Stanford's Summer Sleep Camp in the 70s and 80s, where Dement and his colleagues planted the seed for some of the most important findings in the field of sleep among adults and teens.

Three years ago, the house was immortalized with a plaque and a party in which Jeff Chimenti of Grateful Dead fame performed for a crowd of 60 celebrants (the building is named after the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia). Dement, now 85, says he often passed the house on his way to his ever-popular Sleep and Dreams class and thought it was important to mark the spot.

"I'd go by this house and think, 'What happened here is the biggest thing in sleep disorders.' So I thought something should be done to create a memorial," he says, leaning on the banister in the living room of the house.

I've asked him to give me a tour of the house as background for a story on teen sleep that I'm writing for the next issue of Stanford Medicine magazine. He points to the backyard of the house, now a barren Lake Lagunita, where young volunteers played volleyball, all the while carrying a nest of wires on their heads to monitor their brain waves. Inside, researchers would monitor the youngsters' brain activity 24 hours a day to better understand their patterns of sleep.

"The electrodes would stay on their heads because it was too difficult to take them off," Dement explains. When the volunteers would trudge off to Tresidder Union to go bowling or do other activities, he says, "People would say, 'Here come the trodes.'"

Dement and his colleagues followed the youngsters for ten successive summers, observing patterns in how their sleep changed as they matured.

A major goal of the study was to confirm the popular belief that as teens get older, they need less sleep. To the researchers' surprise, they found that as the youngsters aged, the number of hours they slept stayed the same - roughly 9 hours.

"We thought, 'Oh wow, this is interesting,'" Mary Carskadon, PhD, one of the researchers, told me. Carskadon was a graduate student at Stanford at the time who had become interested in sleep through Dement, her cousin by marriage. Now she's a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and one of the country's leading experts on adolescent sleep.

The researchers also noticed that as the volunteers entered puberty, they were inclined to go to sleep later. In the 1990s, Carskadon established what is now accepted dogma in the field - that teens have a biological propensity to go to sleep as much as two hours later than their younger counterparts, what is known as sleep phase delay.

In addition, the researchers did experiments in sleep restriction, limiting the volunteers' sleep time to five hours a night, and then observing their daytime response. Using their newly developed measure of sleepiness, known as the Multiple Sleep Latency Test, the scientists found that the young participants got progressively sleepier as the week wore on. That laid the groundwork for the concept of "sleep debt" - that sleep loss is cumulative, something you can't necessarily make up for in a single night.

"At the time, the concept of sleep debt hadn't been developed," Dement told me. It later became the focus of his ongoing campaign against drowsy driving due to people accumulating a large sleep debt without being aware and then suffering sometimes devastating consequences from falling asleep on the road.

"That's why you have these terrible accidents," Dement says. "People have this sleep debt but they don't understand it."

As we leave the house, Dement's celebrity status becomes apparent, as a Stanford student in the dorm pauses in admiration. The student was among the 400 who took the Sleep and Dreams class this past year. "It was great," he says. "I learned a lot. I am definitely not going to drive drowsy."

Previously: Exploring the history and study of sleep with Stanford's William DementWilliam Dement: Stanford Medicine's "SandmanStanford docs discuss all things sleepAn afternoon with bedheads and Deadheads and Thanks, Jerry: Honoring pioneering Stanford sleep research
Photo by Ruthann Richter

Popular posts