Everybody sleeps, yet we still know so little about why, what the brain does while we do or how it affects people’s behavior. Recent studies conducted bythe University’s joint sleep research lab with Bradley Hospital hope to answer some of these questions by identifying genes that control sleep and connecting sleep patterns to alcohol dependency and feelings of depression.
Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior Mary Carskadon started the lab for sleep research in 1985. She is “one of the pioneers of sleep education,” said Luis de Lecea, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University. Carskadon helped lead the College Sleep Study from 2010 to 2014, which surveyed incoming freshmen at the University about their sleep habits. Though the study ended with students from the class of 2018 due to a lack of funding, Carskadon’s lab had used the data to correlate sleep habits with weight gain and night screentime.
Inspired by blood samples from participants collected in the same data set that hinted at a connection between certain genes and sleep, the Sleep Research Lab published results this year identifying five new genes in the C. Elegans worm that are connected to sleep. The researchers collaborated with the Department of Neuroscience, which helped run experiments on the worm, drawing off the sleep expertise of Carskadon’s lab. The study shines light on some of the mechanisms that control sleep in animals.
The Sleep Research Lab also published results this year alongside the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies that link sleep habits and psychiatric behavior to alcoholic tendencies. While alcoholism is caused by a complex set of factors, the group determined that sleep also comes into play.
Most recently, the group has published results connecting certain sleep patterns to mood. While previous researchers have focused on this connection, Visiting Professor Tamar Shochat of the University of Haifa statistically showed that certain sleep behaviors correlated with patterns of depression. In the future, the group hopes to identify sleep patterns associated with types of alcoholism using similar analysis.
The lab’s recent studies illustrate the range of research enabled by the original data set. “It’s a very rich study, and it is technical from the molecular to the behavioral level,” Carskadon said. In addition to the alcoholism sleep classification study, the group hopes to further its partnership with the neuroscience department to identify more genes connected to sleep. Carskadon also proposed the possibility of restarting the incoming freshmen study to get richer, deeper data.
Even with the lab’s progress, much remains unknown about sleep. But De Lecea is optimistic about the future. “The sleep field is an extremely active one, and recently it has become mainstream in neuroscience,” he said. “The questions are emerging more and more frequently.”