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Sleep researcher examines the mystery of shut-eye

By Cindy Atoji Keene

In the quest to understand the mystery of sleep, researcher Erin Evans has studied the effects of sleep deprivation in high stress work situations, from astronauts to police and doctors. “Sleep is more complicated than most people realize,” said Evans, a sleep medicine fellow at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The effects of disrupted circadian rhythms – or the sleep-wake cycle – has been linked to everything from forgetfulness to obesity and heart disease. In addition to her sleep research, Evans is a sleep consultant at Isis Parenting, helping hundreds of families improve the sleeping habits of their children. As a mom of two children, though, Evans admits that even as a sleep expert, she’s constantly challenged by her 2-year-old son, who is a textbook case of a “poor sleeper.” “I thought I knew everything about sleep, but he’s putting me through the wringer.”

Q: You recently gave a seminar on how to help your child and yourself sleep better – what was the gist of the information you presented?
Q: I think many parents don’t know where to begin to address sleep issues. It’s only when sleep is being taken from you that it becomes an all-consuming concern. We imagine this peacefully sleeping baby but don’t know how to get to this reality. Sleep in a young infant is a moving target and while one 4-month-old might sleep through the night, another may need to nurse a few times a night. I firmly believe that there is no "one-size-fits-all" strategy. The most important thing is to develop a plan that is realistic and that the family can implement with consistency.

Q: How did you get interested in sleep as a research topic?
A: Sleep takes up a third of our lives. But why do we need to sleep so much? What is the point? We know now that sleep plays an important role in memory, learning, and cognition, but 10 years ago, when I first started studying sleep, it was more of a huge mystery. There continue to be many unanswered questions about sleep that intrigue me.

Q: What are the different ways to test sleep?
A: It depends what you're looking at. For insomnia, for example, people may not necessarily report sleep accurately – often they ‘misremember’ the amount of time they actually sleep. Sleep duration can be studied with a watch-like device that has an accelerometer inside. Because sleep and wakefulness differ by the amount of body movement, this wrist actigraph measures motion. If we have more extensive question, such as what does caffeine or light exposure due to sleep, we might use electrodes to look at brainwaves.

Q: What did you find out in your study of astronauts?
A: I went to the Johnson Space Center in Houston to speak to astronauts before and after space shuttle voyages. This was part of the largest study of sleep in space ever conducted. Astronauts sleep a little less in space and we wanted to find out why, and whether we can control this. We are now analyzing that data.

Q: Do you ever take naps?
A: I do, because I work the night shift, monitoring sleep studies. There’s a saying among sleep researchers, ‘Some must watch, while some must sleep.’ As a result, I often need to take a nap to set myself up for optimal cognition during the night.

Q: When there are sleeping scenes in movies, what do they usually get wrong or right?
A: They are almost always wrong. I find myself yelling at the television every time that happens. If someone is doing a sleep study, for example, they’ll put electrodes on someone to find out about their dreams. This cannot happen – we look at brainwave activity, but can’t know what someone is thinking or dreaming about.

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