Brock graduate students research sleep deprivation

Brock University graduate students have been busy in the school’s innovative Sleep Lab, where they have been conducting research on the effects of mild sleep deprivation and napping. The researchers are also looking for any interested Brock students who may be willing to help them out by working as research participants, an opportunity for which they can receive cash compensation and course credit.

The researchers are Elizabeth Stoakley, Kari Lustig and Kevin MacDonald. Stoakley and Lustig are currently working on a collaborative project where they are looking at the effects of mild sleep deprivation, which refers to when people skip a few hours of sleep a night, such as sleeping for six hours instead of eight.

“We’re doing a sleep restriction study,” said Stoakley. “When you’re just a bit tirsleeplabed, what happens to your brain?”

While the lab (one of the few University sleep labs in Canada) has produced research on substantial sleep deprivation in the past (looking at what happens when people miss out on a significant amount of sleep), Stoakley and Lustig are more interested in what happens when people get a decent amount of sleep every night, but still do not get quite as much as they should. They explained that it tends to be much more common for people to start cutting out an hour or two of sleep a night, and continue this behaviour because they do not perceive the risks that come with this more mild sleep loss. The purpose of their research is to look at the ways that a person is impacted cognitively and emotionally by mild sleep deprivation.

“This is very subtle, and it’s more practical,” said Stoakley. “A lot of people think they are okay because they get six hours of sleep, and don’t realize that most people actually need seven and a half or eight and a half hours.”

Stoakley explained that many people, including students, are getting less sleep than they really need because they do not understand how harmful their sleeping habits can be.

While people may think they are able to function well, Stoakley said that they are looking at the ways that people underestimate how much impact this sleep loss has on their abilities to process situations and emotions.

“You don’t tend to feel as sleepy as your brain is acting… you don’t notice,” said Stoakley. “You don’t predict how limited your performance actually is.”

While Stoakley and Lustig are working on their sleep deprivation study, MacDonald is also working in the sleep lab, but to study the effects of napping. His research examines the effects that afternoon napping has on cognitive functioning, focusing specifically on memory and emotional tasks. MacDonald explains that a lot of his research attempts to give more insight into the effects of napping, as a lot of evidence of the benefits of napping is largely anecdotal, and a lot of research still needs to be done to look at the effects that naps have on the brain.

“We perceive that naps are good,” said MacDonald. “We are focusing on the brain activity during these naps.”

The researchers in the sleep lab, like many of the researchers in Brock’s Psychology Department, rely on human participants to help them with their research. Stoakley emphasized that student participants are at the core of their work: they need student participants in order to carry out their research, and they are extremely grateful for the participants they get.

“We love students,” said Stoakley. “We need them. It’s a bigger time commitment than other opportunities, and we understand that… we love our participants.”

Stoakley explained that, while there is financial compensation and potential course credit for Brock Psychology courses to be gained from participating in the studies, this compensation is only a part of what students can gain from participating. She said that students also get a chance to experience research in a very direct way, learn a lot about psychology research and how it happens, and also to learn more about sleep and the brain. It’s an opportunity to see course material in action.

“The money is more of a thank you,” said Stoakley. “We hope they get something more out of the experience.”

Participants are also treated very well when volunteering. Behind the electrodes and electrode caps that are applied at the entrance of the lab, there are comfortable rooms and a kitchen area to help participants feel comfortable and at home during the study.

“When we do overnight studies, we get them a bit of breakfast,” said Stoakley. “For our napping study, there are some cards… (in the room) there is a bed, a computer, a pretend window, to make it feel kind of homey.”

Whether students are interested in learning more about how their sleep patterns and choices can affect their daily physiology, or immersing themselves further into the research by participating in the lab’s studies, the sleep lab is a great first point of contact.


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