Sleep engineering: Cardiff scientists working on designer rest

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Media captionProf Penny Lewis says sleep engineering can help improve slow-wave sleep which affects memory, brain health and even susceptibility to dementia

We spend a third of our lives sleeping. So, imagine if we could use that time to improve our memories, study, better our brain health or even tackle post-traumatic stress disorder.

Welcome to the world of sleep engineering, where tailoring your shut-eye could be a route to a better you.

Cardiff University is looking at ways to make designer dozing a reality.

Psychologist Prof Penny Lewis believes other scientists who find the idea far-fetched need to wake up.

"The concept is about how we can manipulate our sleep, that is, intentionally apply stimuli so that we can alter our sleep in ways that benefit us," she said.

"What springs to mind for most people, I would imagine, is drugs. But what we're talking about with sleep engineering is actually manipulating sleep without drugs."

Prof Lewis, a self-confessed insomniac who became interested in the subject after suffering a lack of sleep while completing her PhD, said the problem was "common".

Some figures suggest up to one in 10 people in the UK suffer with insomnia.

And in a world of novelty diets, brain apps and health-management technology, she believes customised sleeping could prove popular.

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Image caption Scientists still do not fully know why we sleep

"I suppose some more traditional scientists might find it far-fetched," she said.

"But I think that anyone who is into wearable technology and designer lives in general finds this all quite sensible and in-keeping with other things that are happening in technological development right now."

Her team is based at Cardiff University's CUBRIC building, a state-of the-art neuroscience institute, which has four MRI scanners, an MEG scanner, EEG rooms, brain stimulation rooms, as well as a new sleep lab.

Among other areas, the university's team of sleep experts are looking at ways to enhance people's slow-wave - or deep - sleep.

"It's thought to be incredibly important for maintaining a healthy brain and also for your memory," Prof Lewis said.

"But, perhaps more interestingly to a lot of people, the amount of time spent in slow-wave sleep also seems to predict your brain health in terms of general performance in different cognitive tasks and even the decline into dementia and Alzheimer's disease as you age.

"And what our colleagues in Germany have found is that we can actually enhance these slow waves - just by applying sounds."

The method the team has used involves playing noises into sleepers' ears.

Prof Lewis has worked with French firm, Rythm, which manufactures a headband that detects the wearer's brain activity while they sleep and plays the ticking sounds at the right point to enhance their slow-wave sleep.

She said the headband was "a start" but that more devices would become "increasingly available".

But a sensibly-devised snooze could also, potentially, help those revising or trying to learn a new skill.

Tips for optimising your kip

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"These kinds of things, they only take a bit of investment when you set them up, but you might be saving yourself a couple of hours of sleep every night and feeling better everyday," said Prof Penny Lewis.

She suggests:

  • Setting aside time
  • Keeping a regular schedule
  • Avoiding stimulants like caffeine after 2pm
  • Wearing an eye mask
  • Blackout curtains
  • Ear plugs
  • Making sure your room is cool enough
  • Choose a comfortable bed

Sleep studies have found parts of the brain used when a person learns something also become spontaneously active when they are sleeping.

And some scientists believe it is this reactivation, a kind of neural rehearsal, which allows memories to strengthen.

Prof Lewis said: "We can target specific memories that we're interested in to reactivate them on demand in your sleep.

"What we do know works, and we have been doing for several years now, is we pair a sound or a smell with something you have learnt in the day.

"So, imagine you're studying for your exam, you're hearing your words in Spanish being spoken by your teacher or by yourself and then, when you sleep, you hearing those words again."

But with all this possible manipulation, could there be a detrimental effect on the body's carefully balanced equilibrium?

"It's possible that there could be and we need to do the experiments to look at it," said Prof Lewis.

"But it's also possible that with, say, targeting memory reactivation, you have a certain amount of possible memory reactivation and you are just biasing it with the things that you actually want to remember.

Image caption Test subjects are usually not observed while they rest in one of these bedrooms in Cardiff University's sleep lab as it would make them nervous

"So, you're remembering your Spanish vocabulary, instead of remembering Neighbours that you saw on television. It may be you can just select the things that are important."

The team has received a £1.7m grant from the European Research Council to look at ways to boost people's creativity during different sleep stages.

But there is another area which Prof Lewis believes is "really exciting" - work on the processing of traumatic emotions during sleep.

"Sometimes things happen to you in your life that you don't want to remember in full detail, such as if you've been mugged or had an accident for instance.

"And it's important over time that those memories become less upsetting. So, what you want probably is to remember what happened but not to get upset every time you remember what happened."

The sleep scientists believe conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder could be treated by triggering the troubling memories for reactivation while a person slumbers.

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"[We're] asking, is there a way, through triggering memory reactivation in sleep, where we can actually decouple the emotional reaction from the memory itself?

"What we've found is that exactly, we can. So if we trigger emotional memories to reactivate during REM sleep then what we find is that, [people] rate the upsetting memories as much-less upsetting than they did before sleeping.

"So, it's early days on this but we're pretty excited about it."