Friday, April 29, 2011

Napping Neurons Impair Performance in the Sleep-Deprived

A new study explains why sleep deprivation makes us irritable and impairs our ability to think clearly and make decisions. A team of sleep researchers in Wisconsin and Italy have discovered that parts of your brain may be nodding off while you remain awake. The study was conducted on lab rats, but the findings likely apply to humans. An EEG was used to measure the brain waves of rats as they were kept awake four hours past their usual bedtimes.

Readings show that local populations of neurons in the brain’s cortex went silent in a seemingly random pattern as the rats remained awake. The brain patterns in these select neurons resembled slow wave or non-REM sleep. The rats’ overall EEG readings as well as their behavioral appeared no different than well-rested rats.

Researchers did notice that the rats performed progressively worse at a task that involved locating a sugar pellet. If neurons in the motor cortex switched off as the rats reached for the pellet, they were about 37 percent more likely to fail the task.

The authors of the study caution that the rats were in a state that was different than microsleeps, or very brief episodes of sleep in a sleep-deprived but otherwise awake person.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Early School Start Times Endanger Teen Drivers, Study Finds

Teens as a group are notoriously bad drivers, with the highest annual accident and traffic violation rate of any age group in the United States. Parents have good reason to fear for the worst every time their child gets behind the wheel: auto accidents are the leading cause of death for America’s teens.

A recent study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine is directing some of the blame on schools for creating dangerous driving conditions for teens. The study found that accident rates are 41 percent higher when high school classes begin before 7:30 a.m.

The study compared teen accident rates at two demographically similar neighboring communities in southeast Virginia: Chesapeake and Virginia Beach.

Accident data from 2008 provided by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles showed that there were 65.8 auto crashes for every 1,000 teen drivers in Virginia Beach compared to 46.6 for Chesapeake.

The only significant difference, according to the authors, was school start times. Classes started at 7:20 a.m. in Virginia Beach. Students in Chesapeake were able to sleep in an extra hour and twenty minutes because of the 8:40 a.m. start time.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reports that the average teen needs more than nine hours of sleep per night. Falling asleep early can be difficult for teens because of natural night-owl tendencies and distractions such as smart phones and video games. As a result, teens often fail to get enough sleep and may drive to school with severe sleep deprivation.

Pushing forward start times for high school students will help them get more sleep, and as a result, make the roads safer. School districts across the United States have taken notice and have moved the opening high school bell to 8 a.m. or later.

Learn more about the sleep habits of teenagers.

Image by Carlos Lei

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Air Traffic Controller Crackdown Misguided, Potentially Ineffective

Safety concerns persist as federal regulators continue to discipline air traffic controllers for dozing off on the job. Since March, at least five air traffic controllers have been caught napping while monitoring overnight flights.

With all the recent media coverage, you might think this is a new national emergency - it’s not. Midnight-shift air traffic controllers have always had a grueling schedule and a hard to sustain lifestyle. The public is only now taking notice.

A Wall Street Journal blogger put it best in an article published Tuesday, “If you wanted to design a job conducive to involuntary napping, it would be hard to do much better than putting workers with ever-changing shift schedules in a dark room, with limited supervision, for hours at a stretch.”

The reality is that this problem has gone ignored and unreported for far too long. According to an AP report it once was an open secret in the FAA that overnight air traffic controllers would sometimes sleep on the job. Sometimes it was accidental, other times controllers arranged unsanctioned naps with another colleague briefly covering their job duties.

The FAA and National Air Traffic Controllers Association working group recommends letting controllers take naps for as long as two-and-a-half hours. The group also recommended that controllers be allowed to nap during paid breaks, based on sleep research from the NASA, the Air Force and others. Other nations such as Germany and Japan allow for air traffic controllers to take nap breaks.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood outright rejected those recommendations.

“On my watch, controllers will not be paid to take naps. We’re not going to allow that,“ LaHood said Sunday.

Instead, the Federal Aviation Administration is taking a disciplinary approach by enforcing longstanding FAA rules. Under the rules, controllers are not allowed to sleep on the job - even on breaks. Violating these rules could lead to dismissal.

Managers will be required to report to work slightly earlier or stay at work later to remind overnight controllers that they can’t fall asleep on the job. Most of the controllers will remain alone, unsupervised during the early morning hours.

A few changes announced by the FAA may make a small difference. The agency ordered that 27 airports add a second midnight-shift controller. The FAA is also requiring controllers take at least nine hours off between shifts, rather than the current eight hours.

The infamous “rattler” schedule –with a morning shift followed by a midnight shift - remains possible. With unsustainable floating shift schedules allowed and sanctioned naps still unacceptable the FAA is unlikely to notice much of an improvement in air traffic control towers across the U.S.

Photo by Nemo

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sleepy VP Biden Dozes During Obama Speech

Barak H. Obama became the 44th President of the United States thanks in part to his oratory gifts. On the 2008 campaign trail, he drew comparisons to some of the greatest speakers to grace the oval office.

After two years in office, some supporters wonder whether he can once again inspire a nation.

On Wednesday, President Obama laid out his plans to cut the national deficit, in a highly-anticipated speech some called the first of the 2012 campaign season. The reactions were for the most part predictable - the speech was applauded by his supporters and panned by House Republicans and the Tea Party.

The only real surprise reaction came from the President's running-mate, Vice President Joe Biden, who appeared to have trouble staying awake through the early-afternoon speech.

To be fair, his eyes were only closed for about 30 seconds. Vice President Biden may just be sleep deprived like so many other politicians in Washington, D.C - just look at the woman nodding off behind him in the video.

Mr. Biden isn't the first person the president has put to sleep. Last year, a Kalamazoo, Mich. teen was caught on tape dozing off during a high school commencement speech delivered by President Obama.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Sleep Apnea and Sleepiness Raises Older Adults’ Death Risk

A study in the latest issue of the journal SLEEP provides further evidence that sleep apnea should never be left untreated. Older adults have twice the death risk when excessive daytime sleepiness is paired with obstructive sleep apnea.

The study involved 289 participants at least 65 years old and with no clear signs of dementia or depression. The average age at the start of the study was about 78 years old. About three-quarters of the patients were female.

An overnight sleep study at the beginning of the study was used to diagnose participants with obstructive sleep apnea. Subjects who indicated that they felt sleepy or struggled to stay awake during the daytime at least three to four times a week had excessive daytime sleepiness.

Social security death index records indicate after 14 years nearly 55 percent of the participants died. Results show that participants with excessive daytime sleepiness combined with sleep apnea were more than twice as likely to have died. Being sleepy in and of itself did not lead to an increased mortality risk.

The lead author of the study says it’s still unclear exactly why sleep apnea and excessive daytime sleepiness increase the risk of death in older adults, but he suspects it may be related to inflammation. Cases of inflammation may increase the risk of other medical problems such as hypertension.

Obstructive sleep apnea affects nearly 20 percent of older adults. It occurs when the soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses and blocks the upper airway during sleep, causing pauses in breathing.

The study was unable to demonstrate whether treatment for sleep apnea reduced the risk of death. The Sleep Education Blog strongly recommends that anyone with moderate to severe sleep apnea seek treatment immediately.

CPAP therapy is the first-line treatment for obstructive sleep apnea, especially in more severe cases. Surgery and oral appliance therapy are also effective options for lesser cases.

If you think you may have sleep apnea, get checked out at one of the more than 2,200 AASM-accredited sleep disorders centers in the United States. Go to to find a sleep center near you.

Image by Nick Wilkes

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Second Air Traffic Controller Sleeps through Midnight Shift

For the second time in two months, an air traffic controller was caught sleeping on the job. A Federal Aviation Administration report says the unnamed controller didn’t accidently doze off - he intentionally slept for five hours.

The incident happened at McGee Tyson Airport in Knoxville, Tenn. on February 19 – more than a month before a supervisor working alone at Washington’s Reagan National Airport unintentionally fell asleep for nearly a half-hour.

Unlike the incident a month ago, the Knoxville controller is being fired by the government for “unprofessional and inappropriate behavior.”

It’s easy to blame an irresponsible employee, but as the Sleep Education Blog reported recently, the problem runs much deeper.

Air traffic controllers face notoriously difficult sleep schedules. One common schedule for air traffic controllers known as the “rattler” involves returning to work a midnight shift only hours after working a daytime shift. The nickname “rattler” comes from the damage the shift does to sleep patterns.

The problem of fatigued air traffic controllers are hardly a new one. In 2007, the National Transportation Safety Board released a report that shed light on how sleep deprivation affects job performance. The report revealed that air traffic controllers get an average of only 2.3 hours of sleep before a midnight shift. Rapidly rotating shifts and short rest periods between shifts lead workers to be fatigued before a shift even begins.

To make things worse, most midnight-shift air traffic controllers work alone. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association emphasizes staffing problems as the cause for both cases, and is demanding there be extra controllers during overnight shifts as safety measure.

The FAA is hesitant to hire, because air traffic controllers generally earn high pay and have pricey benefits. The U.S. Labor Department Bureau of Statistics reports that the average salary of air traffic controllers was $109,218 in March 2009. Transportation officials may have a difficult time justifying that kind of cost in the current political and budgetary climate on Capitol Hill.

It’s possible that air traffic controllers will see some type of regulation that affects their schedules as a reaction to both incidents. In the meantime, the AASM has provided air traffic controllers and shift workers with a list of tips that can help with the midnight shift.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Online Toolset Helps Young Children and Their Parents Find Sleep

Sleep-deprived new parents may want to put down the baby books and turn to the internet for help. A new study in the April issue of the journal SLEEP shows internet-based interventions work wonders reducing infant and toddler sleep disturbances.

Mothers in the study used Johnson & Johnson’s Customized Sleep Profile, an online program that compares a child’s sleep to other children of the same age. Parents enter details about the child’s sleep habits, such as position, sleep environment and bedtime routine and times awoken per night.

The program uses an algorithm to generate a summary of the child’s sleep habits and generates customized recommendations. A child can be an “excellent, good or disrupted sleeper.”

A group of 264 mothers were randomly assigned to an internet intervention group or a control group. Following an internet intervention, parents reported a 50 percent or more decrease in the number and duration of night wakings. Children took less time to fall asleep and had a longer total sleep time at night. As a result, the mothers slept better and had notable improvements in levels of tension, depression, fatigue and confusion.

Johnson & Johnson’s Customized Sleep Profile seems to be an effective place to start if your child is a disturbed sleeper. The algorithm gives at least some useful advice that benefited the mothers in the study.

Similar internet interventions are available from other online sources. It’s too early to know that the other programs work, because the study only examined the effectiveness of Johnson & Johnson’s Customized Sleep Profile.

Sleep problems are common among young children – as many as 30 percent of infants and toddlers have disrupted sleep. Young children have a form of sleep apnea, which would require treatment. If you believe your child’s sleep problems may be serious, skip the internet intervention and see your family pediatrician instead.

Read more about Sleep & Young Children.