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See Inside Scientific American Volume 309, Issue 3

"Human Sleep Project" Could Unlock the Secrets to a Good Night's Rest

What we could learn by monitoring sleep patterns of the entire world
five people sleeping in bed



Thomas Fuchs

Everyone knows the crankiness, puffy eyes and excessive yawning that follow a bad night's sleep. Those chronically sleep-deprived also have increased risks of heart disease, obesity and early death. Because sleep patterns are difficult to monitor in large populations, researchers do not know what causes many sleep problems or how exactly these problems affect us. Till Roenneberg, a chronobiologist at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, thinks a global “human sleep project” could finally solve some of these mysteries.

A common way to collect sleep data is through retrospective surveys of sleep habits, but they are unreliable because people tend to overestimate how much sleep they get. Laboratory studies are accurate but do not reproduce real-life behaviors. A global sleep project, proposed in a June issue of Nature (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group), would outfit people with a variety of sensors to track their sleep patterns in real-time and, as a bonus, provide detailed feedback to the subjects.

“If people can actually see their own data on their own Internet-based platform, I think we will not get 100 or 1,000 but a million people who will participate,” Roenneberg says.

With all those data, researchers could tease out the lifestyle factors that ensure healthy sleep. “Much like satellite studies of weather, it is the larger view that will reveal global patterns, limits and interactions between factors we typically hold constant in the lab,” says Max Hirshkowitz, a spokesperson for the National Sleep Foundation. He believes a global sleep project would also illuminate how culture, occupation and geography all influence sleep patterns.

A project on this scale would cost about $30 million, Roenneberg says, which is a lot for a field that is, like sleep itself, chronically undervalued. “Sleep is unconscious and not apparently productive—it's not like making money or making children—so people think that they can neglect it,” he says. His hoped-for global data could be a wake-up call on the importance of shut-eye.

This article was originally published with the title "Wisdom of the Sleepyheads."

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