Catching up on sleep

April 24, 2012, 3:02 a.m.


It might seem strange, but just as the harmful effects of tobacco were not well known a half-century ago, many people also did not recognize the dangers of too little sleep.

Catching up on sleep
Jerry, a current Stanford self-op, was once the location of a number of sleep studies conducted by William Dement during the 1970s. (ROGER CHEN/The Stanford Daily)

Not until William Dement, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and founder of the Sleep Research Center (widely regarded as the world’s first sleep laboratory), set up “summer sleep camps” during the 1970s at what was then the Lambda Nu fraternity — now the self-op Jerry, named after the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.

“It was the first time anyone had ever used a large residence to study sleep,” Dement said.

Dement’s work in Jerry was commemorated earlier this year with a plaque placed in the entryway of the residence, which once housed both undergrads living on campus during the summer and participating in the research and the researchers themselves.

“The researchers could actually manipulate the subjects’ sleep,” Dement said.

He said the biggest surprise to come out of the Jerry sleep camps was just how much sleep can affect an individual’s day-to-day performance. According to Dement, more sleep can make a person vacillate between widely different moods — turning a person from “an idiot to a genius,” “cranky to cheerful” or “morose to happy.”

Along with colleague Mary Carskadon, now a professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, Dement paid subjects to live at Jerry for about a week at a time, comparing their ability to do tasks after a night in which they received the proper amount of sleep with their ability to perform the same tasks while suffering from sleep deprivation.

During Dement’s study, a subject might go to bed at 10 p.m. the first night and be awakened at 8 a.m. and, the next night, go to bed at 12 a.m. to be awakened at 6 a.m. Researchers would then study how long it took the person to feel and act “normal” and fully rested again. Researchers had studied sleep before, but usually only in one-night increments.

Asked for his advice to sleep-deprived Stanford students — beyond the obvious solution of getting more shut-eye — Dement had good news.

“If you stay up all night, [you] can restore with about seven or eight hours because sleep is deeper,” he said.

He also noted that recent research conducted by his colleague Cheri Mah ’06 M.S. ’07 on the Stanford men’s basketball team has shown that sleep deprivation can affect athletic performance. When the players got more sleep, their cognitive reaction times improved. According to Mah’s study, athletes who worry primarily about nutrition and training should also focus on getting more sleep.

So does Dement himself ever have trouble sleeping? Apparently, not much.

“The source of almost all [my] sleeping issues is nervousness and lecturing,” he said.

But after 40 years of teaching, he suggests that academic duties are second nature to him, much in the same manner as catching some Z’s.

— Katie Kramon

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