Western-led sleep study to put misconceptions to rest

As a night clerk at Huron University College for nine years, Evan Agnew became accustomed to an erratic sleep schedule. Now that he is retired, night-time rest is still elusive. Even now, he usually gets random chunks of shut-eye: a few hours each night, plus a nap or two during the day.
“With little sleep, I can function relatively well for short periods of time,” he said. “For me, the concept of having eight, nine or 10 hours sleep is just silly.”

Those assumptions will be among the first to be tested by Western neuroscientist Adrian Owen, who is leading what he hopes to be the world’s largest sleep study involving, potentially, 100,000 participants from around the world. Launched today, the study is being conducted in partnership between Western and Cambridge Brain Sciences in Toronto.

Researchers are scouring the globe for participants. If interested in joining, log onto worldslargestsleepstudy.com for details.

Head of the Owen Lab at the Brain and Mind Institute, Owen is looking to understand better why the brain craves sleep and what happens when we don’t sleep well or don’t sleep enough.

“We all know sleep affects us but we know very little about the effect on the brain of too little sleep,” Owen said.

Maybe older and younger people have different sleep needs. Perhaps night owls are better suited to some jobs than early birds. Does a sleepless accountant make more errors than, say, a tired playwright or a fatigued millwright?

“Can we determine which cognitive abilities are most affected by lack of sleep? Is it our reasoning, short-term memory, spatial ability, our verbal understanding? And is that effect different for different people – and if so, how is it different?

“Should you decide to get married, drive a car, even negotiate the price of a car after very little sleep? How much sleep is ‘enough’?”


SLEEP STUDY GIVES BBC REPORTER A ‘WAKEUP CALL’: BBC medical reporter Fergus Walsh has been one of the closest watchers of Western neuroscientist Adrian Owen’s research. READ THE STORY.


If that sounds like a lot of questions, it’s because researchers know surprisingly little of the neuroscience behind what makes sleep important.

Our bodies need rest, of course. Without it, physiological effects can include higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension.

Sleep deprivation has an effect on our brains too. Driving tired, for example, can lead to impairment that acts a lot like drinking-and-driving: slow reaction times and poor co-ordination, judgment and memory.

It has long been understood that the brain is hard at work during sleep. Like a self-organizing filing cabinet, the brain chooses this time to consolidate the day’s learning and memories, to bring order to the mélange of our sensory experiences.

While there have been large studies that examine sleep and large studies testing cognition (including ones led by Owen), no study this large has rigorously examined the relationship between sleep and cognition.

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A 24/7 world has made it more common that people work odd schedules, keep irregular hours and generally have more sleep disturbances.

Canadians older than 15 get, on average 6.9 hours of sleep a night.

The list of those who – by choice or by necessity – regularly experience sleep loss, sleep deficits and sleep deprivation is a long one:

  • On-call professionals and skilled tradespeople who regularly sleep with one ear open to an urgent summons to the operating room or to repair a downed power line;
  • Students who cram school, study and research hours in with part-time jobs;
  • New parents who juggle day jobs outside the home and comfort sleepless children at night;
  • Technology users bring who devices to bed with them to catch up on the news, scan their social-media feeds, answer emails and watch videos; and
  • Factory workers, health-care workers and emergency first-responders who often rotate through day shifts, night shifts and days off. In the United States, 29 per cent of employed adults work something other than a day shift, according to the National Occupational Health Survey. That’s about the same percentage as in Canada, where that Statistics Canada numbers suggest about four million Canadians work non-daytime hours.

Work-and-sleep studies have suggested injury, illness and loss of productivity caused by sleep loss may account for billions of dollars in hidden costs each year. Yet, we complain-boast about the assignment that had us working all night or the teething baby who kept us up around the clock. We take pride in having powered through.

After all, inventor-and-artist Leonardo da Vinci reportedly took only 20-minute naps throughout the day and night. Then again, genius Albert Einstein did OK for himself and he insisted on 10-hours-per-night sleep. Plus naps.

Owen said this ground-breaking study is a methodological approach to sorting through the extremes and the averages, the outliers and the norms.

“We have the opportunity in this study to learn far more about the brain’s response to sleep than we have ever had before. And what we learn ultimately has the potential to change how millions of people go about their daily lives.

“Once we find out what people can’t do when they have too little sleep, then we can figure out what sleep is for.”

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Special to Western NewsAs a night clerk at Huron University College for nine years, Evan Agnew became accustomed to an erratic sleep schedule. Agnew was among of the first to test his cognition in sleep study led by Western neuroscientist Adrian Owen.

Agnew – our retired night clerk – was among of the first to test his cognition in a demonstration of how the sleep study will work. He and some other volunteers, with a BBC news camera crew following them, took part in a recent ‘sleep-over’ at the Brain and Mind Institute.

They gathered, well-rested, in the early evening and took some tests on iPads. Throughout the evening, they took similar tests, interspersed with movies and games and social time. It was lights-out at 4 a.m. and then more tests when they awoke at 8:30 a.m.

For Agnew, it was about as much sleep as he normally received. He believed his tests scores would change very little across the 12-hour span. He was stunned by the results.

“The first test I did was the best one. By the time we were finished, my scores were just slightly better than an amoeba,” Agnew said. “They just continually got worse as the night progressed.”

His personal conclusion: “I think maybe a little more sleep, for me, would be a good thing,”

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The testing will be conducted entirely online at worldslargestsleepstudy.com, designed by neuroscientists through Cambridge Brain Sciences to test different types of thinking.

Study participants will track their sleep over a three-day period and log in to do some short brain challenges, designed by Owen and his group at Cambridge Brain Sciences, for about 30 minutes during each of those days.

Researchers will then analyze sleep and cognition data. The intent is to share the first results about six months after launch.

Based on responses to his previous study on the efficacy of brain-game training, Owen expects this could draw hundreds of thousands of participants from around the world.

“The Internet has provided us with this unprecedented opportunity to involve the public in scientific research – research that can draw out a gold-mine of sleep and brain data we’ve never before had access to,” Owen said.