What’s more important than sleep? You spend a third of your life doing it and if you’re one of the lucky ones you get eight hours every night. Some people need less, some need more, some people don’t seem to sleep at all. The thing about sleep though, is that we don’t really understand it. Despite all of our technological advancement, sleep is still a mystery to the average person.
At Brock University, there are a lot of people sleeping. About 2,500 people live on campus and you might even find some students falling asleep in class or on a couch in the library. All these people will be able to tell you about sleep is that none of them are getting enough of it.
If you know where to look though, you’ll find a lab on campus, hiding away in the twisting hallways of Mackenzie Chown, that specializes in the study of sleep. Brock’s Sleep Research Laboratory was founded in 1971 by Dr. Robert Ogilvie and is now run by Brock Professor Dr. Kimberly Cote, a former student of Ogilvie.
The sleep lab itself is the reason PhD candidate Kevin MacDonald came to Brock in the first place. For his undergraduate degree, MacDonald stayed at home in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. MacDonald began his work in the sleep lab here at Brock five years ago, while studying for his masters degree. He says it’s the collaborative atmosphere and the ability to do his own studies that first attracted him.
“Here I’m going to have a three bedroom lab to do my studies and I wouldn’t get that from other places,” said MacDonald.
“Almost all PhD research is built in some sort of collaborative way with other labs,” MacDonald explained, saying that through his work in the lab he is able to look at research from other fields and see how that research overlaps with his own.
Next year, says MacDonald, a lot more studies will be starting, particularly those in collaboration with other labs including one that looks at the connection between hormones and sleep. MacDonald says that camaraderie and collaboration he’s found at Brock are not things he saw when looking at other universities.
“Here, everybody wants everyone else to be doing the best work they can,” he said. That environment is beneficial, not only to the researchers themselves but also for their study participants.
“I’d like to think that participating in research here is informative for students,” said MacDonald. “When participants get to be in [the lab] they get to see how the research works…and there’s lots of time to ask questions….We try to really ensure they’re learning something about how sleep and the research works,” he said. Students can actually see their own brain activity if they want, something MacDonald says not many people have likely seen or know about.
MacDonald took me on a tour of the sleep lab, where he does most of his work. The lab consists of three bedrooms that resemble something like a mid-priced hotel room. A comfortable looking bed, night stand, dresser, and a desk with a computer are the bulk of the furniture. The rooms are homey enough to make ‘guests’ feel comfortable, but not so homey that they are likely to forget that they’re there for a test.
To make the rooms feel a little bit more like home, the researchers have added curtains. But there aren’t any windows. MacDonald says it would be difficult to account for the variables when participants are woken up by chirping birds and the rising sun at different times every day. The lab also has a full bathroom with a shower that is much nicer than what most students are used to. When study participants wake up, they are treated to a nice kitchen and sitting room that comes fully stocked with a TV, DVD player and VCR with wide selection of DVDs and VHS tapes. MacDonald says the Disney movies are popular and people tend to watch the Grinch the most, whether it’s Christmas or not.
Participants come into the lab and are hooked up to some electrodes that look like they’re from Back to the Future. They sleep for a control night to make sure they don’t have any sleep disorders that would change the results of the study. With MacDonald’s study, participants take an hour or so to wake up before being asked to perform a series of tasks to assess their performance.
“When you stay overnight in the Sleep Lab, we monitor your sleep by placing electrode sensors on your scalp (to measure brain waves), near your eyes (to measure eye movements), and under your chin (to measure muscle tone),” Notes Dr. Cote. The sleep lab team can then use the information gathered to find out when the participant fell asleep and how deeply they slept throughout the night.
Despite his research into sleep, MacDonald says he doesn’t get much of it himself.
“I’m lucky if I get five hours a night,” he jokes. Unlike most students though, he doesn’t stay up late for fun. MacDonald says he actually spends many nights in the sleep lab, monitoring equipment while study participants are sleeping. MacDonald says people might be surprised at how different each person’s sleep can be.
“Two people can sleep for eight hours and their sleep is very different,” he said. Different levels of sleep quality lead to different levels of performance in the tasks assigned. Those tasks are what separates Brock’s sleep studies from other ones. They look at memory on a more continuous basis and are more interested in how well participants remember things rather than just whether they remembered or not.
Dr. Kimberly Cote, current head of the sleep lab, is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brock University as well as the president of the Canadian Sleep Society. She’s took over the lab after Dr. Ogilvy retired in 2000.
“I did my undergraduate at Brock where I first got excited about Sleep Research,” said Cote. After Brock, Cote got a Masters of Medical Science at the University of Toronto and a PhD in experimental psychology from Ottawa U. She then went on to do a post-doctoral fellowship in Zurich, Switzerland.
“I worked with world experts in sleep research in all of these places, and eventually came back to Brock as Faculty where I took over my mentor’s lab and got to work together with him for a year before he retired.”
Cote says that since she arrived at Brock for her undergraduate degree, things have really grown.
“Consistent with the goals of being a comprehensive university, Faculty are being hired that have excellent research track records,” said Cote. “There’s no doubt that there are top research faculty here and that exciting work is being done. In Psyc, we have a large graduate program, so it is quite common for collaborative research projects to be going on among groups of Faculty and students.”
Right now, researchers are looking at the role of sleep in waking cognition and performance: how does the amount or quality of sleep affect your ability to perform over the course of the day?
“We run experimental sleep deprivation studies where we look at the impact of varying degrees of sleep loss on cognitive and emotion functioning,” says Cote. “Currently, we are investigating the role of hormones (like testosterone in men and sex hormones and phase of the menstrual cycle in women) as predictors of vulnerability to sleep loss.”
The lab is also conducting studies involving recording sleep after a period of learning in order to understand how the different aspects of sleep, “reflect the consolidation of new learned skills and information. The latter type of study is what we are running now. Kevin MacDonald is a third year PhD student who needs to recruit healthy good sleepers who are willing to sleep a couple of nights in the lab. In this study, you get to sleep.”
Cote wants students to know that the studies are not that complicated for students who might want to participate, and some students have said the lab might even be more comfortable to sleep in than residence. On top of the memory and sleep deprivation research that are currently going on in the Sleep Lab, Cote says the lab has conducted a variety of studies.
“We have run studies in applied population like older adults, people with insomnia, and those who have experienced a traumatic brain injury,” said Cote. “In all of this work, we are aiming to understand the functions of sleep, both the benefits of sleep and consequences of poor sleep.”
Research at the Brock University Sleep Research Laboratory is currently funded by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada. The council granted the sleep lab it’s second five-year Discovery Grant in 2014. Their first encompassed 2009-2014.
Cote says it’s important for students at Brock to get involved in the wide range of research going on at the school.
Who gets involved right now? Mostly Psychology and Neuroscience students, but that doesn’t mean other people aren’t welcome.
“A great way to learn about human research and methods used in the sleep lab is to participate in a study,” says Cote. “We also have many volunteers from other disciplines who are curious about having their sleep recorded.” MacDonald said that students can even look at their own brain waves if they’re interested. But the sleep lab is more than that.
“It’s not uncommon to get budding entrepreneurs from Business because the sleep industry is so fascinating,” says MacDonald. “We like to refer to the Sleep Lab as “Hotel Brock” and think all students should consider making an overnight at Hotel Brock part of their Brock experience.”
Research is going on all over Brock. The school operates dozens of labs in different areas of the school focusing on a variety of different disciplines. Funding for this research comes from a wide variety of sources and most of the work is done by professors and graduate students. While many students don’t think about it, research is an important part of what universities do on a daily basis. High quality research leads to high quality learning for students and professors alike.
“As students at Brock, you are indeed a part of a larger academic community that is engaged in discovery and innovation, and the application of knowledge to real-world problems,” said Cote.
She says students at Brock are taught by professors who have expertise and hands-on experience in their fields, which are valuable to the learning experience. However, students can enhance their own experience by getting out of the classroom. Cote says “ you can see more of this if you look for opportunities to be a research assistant, volunteer, or study under the supervision of one of the Faculty members for your thesis.”
Students at Brock can be a part of current and future sleep studies, something MacDonald and Cote both say will not only help the study, but will also help the students learn a bit about research that goes on at the school. Unfortunately science is a little bit more particular than some disciplines and candidates hoping to participate in sleep studies must meet certain criteria:
-17-30 years of age
-Normal vision; not colour blind
-No sleep disorders or difficulties
-Regular sleep between 11 p.m. and 9 a.m.
-No regular night shift work
-No history of psychiatric conditions like depression, anxiety or schizophrenia
-No history of head injuries or concussion
-No current medical conditions or medication affecting sleep, cognition or neurological functioning
Candidates will undergo a 15 minute phone interview to be considered and will be paid a small honorarium for completing the study.
Anyone who is interested in being a part of the current sleep study going on in the Brock Sleep Research Lab should email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 905-688-5550 ext. 3795