Sleep study gives BBC reporter a ‘wakeup call’


Award-winning BBC medical reporter Fergus Walsh has been one of the closest watchers among media of Western neuroscientist Adrian Owen research.

Walsh was the first broadcaster to report, in a news item and in a mini-documentary piece, Owen’s ground-breaking study showing that people in a vegetative state have the ability to communicate. And he was intrigued enough of Owen’s most recent project to spend three days at Western volunteering himself as one of the first participants in Owen’s latest study.

Launched today, Owen is leading what he hopes to be the world’s largest sleep study involving, potentially, 100,000 participants from around the world. The study is being conducted in partnership between Western and Cambridge Brain Sciences in Toronto.

Researchers are scouring the globe for participants. If interested, you log onto for details.

As part of a news story that aired Monday on BBC, Walsh performed a number of brain tests while fully rested and then – after staying awake most of a night – did those same tests after about four hours’ sleep. Both times, his brain function was measured during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

His scores in the cognitive tests were far worse after his sleep-deprived night than before it. “It confirms what I knew already – that I need seven hours in order to function well.

“What I found really staggering were the before-and-after MRI scans. These showed what lack of sleep did to my brain. In the first images my brain showed lots of activity; it was lit up like a Christmas tree. In the second, taken after four hours’ sleep, it was like half the bulbs had blown.”

Walsh said sleep is a universal but under-valued health concern, and that’s what makes this Western research so compelling on a world scale.

“What I hope this study will show is the degree to which sleep deprivation affects all of us in all our decision-making, whether we are parents of young children, doctors on call, night-shift factory workers or exam-cramming students,” he continued.

“People know about heart health and what they need to do to keep their heart healthy. But our brain health is much less understood. Hopefully, this brain experiment will encourage people to have a wakeup-call; they need to take this seriously. Sleep is important for our over-all health.”