Better sleep in space?: Madison researchers selected help future astronauts

Before technology can succeed in space, it has to be tested out in Earth’s atmosphere. That’s the case for the headband Stephanie Jones and Brady Riedner have been developing for the last decade.

“Before that, it was sending people home with giant suitcases full of electrodes, transponders on their beds,” Jones said.

“Because it’s recording sleep night after night after night in people, we’re learning so much more about what sleep is actually like in the real world, and then we can hope to impact that,” Riedner added.

The device is made by appliance manufacturer Philips and feels similar to something you’d wear to hold your hair back during a workout. It fits over the top of a person’s head, wrapping around their forehead and over their ears. There’s a small circular hook up close to where the back of your neck meets the skull. There are other monitors resting on the forehead, all powered by a simple on-off switch in the front.

The brain is not totally offline. It’s actually taking in information and it’s taking in external signals from the outside world,” Riedner explained, “and one of the ones that’s really good at impacting the brain is auditory information.”

Knowing that, the two assistant directors of the Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness have programed the devices to emit tones to sync a person’s brain up with slow-wave sleep patterns. Jones says that’s the deepest sleep in the brain.

“That’s kind of where the business of sleep gets done, so when you feel refreshed in the morning, that’s usually coordinated with the amount of slow-wave sleep you’ve had,” Jones said.

The headband’s functions are based on specific algorithms, acting as a sort of “metronome for the brain,” according to Riedner.

“The real challenge is to go into populations where sleep might not be ideal and see if we can help make their sleep more efficient,” Riedner said.

That’s exactly what they did with older adults, ages 50 to 70. That population is known to struggle with the slow-wave sleep Jones and Riedner are trying to optimize.

Greg Kramer participated in that study, wearing the headband for about a month and handing that data back to the Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness. As someone who thrives is self-awareness, Kramer was excited to be more tuned in with his patterns and what affects his sleep.

“I think it’s just unbelievably fascinating territory, so much uncharted waters and what the kids will be studying in the next generation,” Kramer said.

By this winter, the Institute plans to test the headbands out on teenagers, another age group that notoriously cuts their sleep short.

Additionally, NASA has chosen the Madison-based research center to host a trial to see if space travelers could benefit from the headbands. The hope is by enhancing the quality of an astronaut’s sleep, you can improve their cognition when they’re awake.

“We’re talking about an astronaut population that’s very healthy, that’s very active, you know, they sleep well,” Riedner said. “If you’re someone who has insomnia, you’re not going to be an astronaut. So these people are already sleeping well, but they’re restricted on, you need to get up and you need to perform.”

The Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness is one of two sites for this upcoming research. It will look to enroll 25 healthy volunteers from 25 to 45 years old. You can learn more about participating in the NASA study, the teenager trial, or any other research at https://sleep-and-consciousness.wisc.edu/participate-in-a-study/.

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