Oxford University

The sleeping cure

Sleep is an important part of our lives, but, as a society, we don’t always take it seriously. ‘We marginalise it,’ says Professor Russell Foster, head of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute (SCNi) at the University of Oxford.

Sleep doesn’t just help with things such as consolidating the memory, or repairing the body, but also enhances our thinking. ‘It is our most important cognitive enhancer. When we sleep, we are coming up with new ideas, innovative solutions to the complex problems we face today,’ explains Professor Foster.

An early-warning mechanism

However, according to the SCNi’s latest work, the role sleep plays in our lives can go well beyond all this. In fact, looking at someone’s sleeping pattern can be a way of detecting the onset of disease – from mental illness and dementia to eye diseases.

Working with the Department of Psychiatry, the SCNi looked at young adults with high or low risk of developing bipolar disorder. ‘We found that those individuals at high risk of developing bipolar already have a sleep abnormality,’ explains Professor Foster. ‘So sleep can be used as a biomarker, an early warning device.’

When we sleep, we are coming up with new ideas, innovative solutions to the complex problems we face today.

This is because the circuits that generate normal sleep and normal mental health overlap – a hypothesis published in Nature in 2010 and then demonstrated experimentally by the SCNi team in 2013.

Sleep as a therapy

What if, by regulating sleep, we can have an impact on these diseases? Professor Foster says this is already happening: ‘Dan Freeman [Professor of Clinical Psychology at Oxford] has been able to partially stabilise sleep in patients with schizophrenia and, as a result, reduce levels of paranoia by 50%.’ Sleep then becomes a new therapeutic target – a whole new approach to treatment. ‘If we start to stabilise sleep, we will not only see an improvement in the quality of life of patients, but also have an impact on their primary psychiatric symptoms as well,’ he adds.

This is just the beginning. By gaining a deeper understanding of the ‘shared pathways’ between sleep and mental illness, we might one day be able to prevent the latter from arising. ‘Perhaps we could delay the onset of a disease, or kick the brain into another developmental trajectory, because all these brain circuits are plastic,’ explains Professor Foster. ‘By combining the emerging understanding of sleep neuroscience with psychiatry, we have come up with these extraordinary and exciting possibilities.’

The first sleep science institute in the world

It is collaborations like these that will further our understanding of the impact of sleep on health. Encouraging these joint projects is the SCNi’s core aim; however, the centre only exists in virtual form, with academics spread across various departments. This is about to change, as Professor Foster’s institute has been awarded a £5 million grant from the Sir Jules Thorn Charitable Trust to set up a physical home for the world’s first sleep science institute, where the SCNi team will explore the fundamental mechanisms of sleep and use this information to improve health.

By combining the emerging understanding of sleep neuroscience with psychiatry, we have come up with these extraordinary and exciting possibilities.

In this new space, this kind of cooperation will become easier. ‘We need a space where the basic scientists and the clinical scientists can interact,’ he says. ‘Bumping into people and asking about their work is how you make connections. A lot of the excitement in bioscience in the 21st century is going to be in the interface between disciplines,’ explains Professor Foster.

Engaging with the public

The new building will also host the sleep medicine summer schools, launched this year, and include a media hub to produce content for the first online Master’s degree in sleep medicine in the world. ‘Clinical training essentially ignores sleep medicine. This online degree will allow healthcare professionals to learn about sleep medicine at a time that suits them,’ enthuses Professor Foster.  

Public engagement is a high priority for the institute, which is why the new building will include public space for working together with carers, patient groups and parents. ‘Engaging with the public is not just about academics talking to people, but involves both listening to and working with non-specialists to gain a better understanding of the problem and provide solutions based upon broad experience. That’s why I want this public area.'

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