The Neuroscientist Behind the World's Largest Sleep Study on the Importance of a Good Night's Rest

We’re testing tens of thousands of people around the world to learn how much sleep we need to be at our best during the day, and to understand more about the long and short-term effects of sleep loss on our brains.

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I’m Professor Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist whose research focuses on brain imaging, cognitive function and consciousness. I’ve been fascinated with the human brain for more than 25 years: how it works, why it works, and what happens when it doesn’t work so well. I run a lab at Western University in Canada, where we investigate human cognition through studies of sleep, anesthesia, vegetative state and other so-called ‘states of consciousness’.

We also specialize in conducting large population-based studies of brain function involving tens of thousands of members of the public. For example, my lab conducted the largest study in history to investigate whether brain-training games actually make you smarter (pro-tip: they don’t). In another huge study, we asked whether IQ is a good measure of general intelligence (pro-tip: it’s not). We’ve also learned that up to one in five people in a vegetative state are actually conscious and aware. I recently wrote a book about it called Into the Gray Zone.

Now my team is working on an exciting new project to understand what happens to specific parts of our brains when we get too little sleep. We all know that we shouldn’t drive when we’ve not had enough sleep, but what about our ability to make decisions, lay down memories, solve problems and make plans for the future?

We’re testing tens of thousands of people around the world to learn how much sleep we need to be at our best during the day, and to understand more about the long and short-term effects of sleep loss on our brains. Since we can’t bring everyone to our labs, we’re bringing the lab to people’s homes through online tests we’ve designed at Cambridge Brain Sciences – a tool that allows anyone to keep a quantified record of their brain health. We hope to be able to share our findings in scientific journals in about six months time.

That’s why I’m looking for as many people as possible to participate online in the World’s Largest Sleep Study – a free research project that will allow every participant to see how their sleeping patterns affect their brain health and to compare themselves to the thousands of other people who have already taken part. You’ll also be contributing directly to another scientific project on a massive scale.

While we are still in the data collection phase of the study, it’s pretty clear from the preliminary results that the amount of sleep you get matters a lot (despite the boasts of some super-achievers and politicians!). People who slept less than 5 hours performed worse on every single one of the 12 tests of brain function compared to those who slept 8-9 hours per night. Specifically, poor sleep was associated with lower performance as it relates to memory, reasoning and verbal ability. Practically speaking, this means you will have more trouble remembering things, making good decisions and following verbal instructions, as well as articulating your thoughts clearly. 

Over the next few months, we will be gathering and analyzing more data in order to answer more detailed and nuanced questions about sleep and cognition, like: Who is most susceptible to the effects of sleep deprivation? Are people in certain life-situations or professions (like new parents, shift-workers, healthcare professionals, emergency responders, etc.) better able to adapt to sleep deprivation? Is there any truth to the commonly-held belief that as you get older, you need less sleep?

Our team of neuroscientists are hosting a Reddit AMA to talk about all of this and more on Tuesday, July 18 at 1 PM EST – you can tune into the AMA here.

Adrian Owen is the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at Western University. In his spare time, Adrian fronts “Untidy Naked Dilemma” – a band composed of neuroscientists from his lab.

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