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The Future of Sleep Studies
Most people have a general idea of what happens during a sleep study. You spend the night sleeping in a laboratory “all wired up” while doctors run tests.
However, the future of sleep research looks much different, according Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep at Howard County General Hospital.
“Sleep clinical care and research is in a revolutionary place because of technology,” says Gamaldo. “The brick-and-mortar model of conducting sleep studies in a medical care center is really going to be fading into the sunset or will be minimal at best.”
New approaches to testing are likely to take place in the comfort of your own home.
At-Home Sleep Testing Devices
Conducting sleep tests at home is going to become a lot more common, says Gamaldo. “Many of the portable devices currently available show a lot of promise with producing information that is in line with what we see in the lab,” she says. “These technologies can monitor people’s sleep or what’s going on with their breathing during sleep,” she says. Johns Hopkins uses several FDA-approved at-home devices for:
- Measuring sleep brain wave activity, which can show doctors how quickly you fall asleep, how deeply you sleep and whether rest quality is good
- Assessing leg movements to detect restless legs syndrome
- Monitoring breathing to help diagnose sleep apnea. In addition, home monitoring captures how well you rest in the comfort of your own home. Sleeping in a lab does not give doctors or researchers an idea of what a typical night’s sleep is like for you in your bedroom or sleep environment.
While these portable devices are becoming increasingly more accurate, some people may still need to come to the lab for a more comprehensive or sophisticated look at their biorhythms during sleep, says Gamaldo.
A lab has the advantage of being a controlled environment where you’re under constant observation by a researcher in the case of more technically involved sleep monitoring. “If a wire falls off while you’re sleeping, there’s someone there to put it back on,” she says.
Wearable Technology and Phone Apps
Smartphone apps and wearable tracking devices will become more common in the sleep research field,” says Gamaldo. “There are apps now that record a person snoring at home. We hope to eventually correlate the information with actual features of sleep disorders, which could indicate the presence of conditions like sleep apnea. Not too long ago, this was a disorder we could only diagnose in the sleep lab.”
Scientists need to compare the information that the tracking devices and apps gather to the data that researchers and doctors gather in a lab setting, she says. These devices are convenient and can significantly increase access to care. However, researchers need to make sure that apps and trackers undergo rigorous and reportable validation studies. The public needs to be sure that that these devices actually do what they claim, she adds.
Researchers and doctors are increasingly able to use telehealth, or communication technologies, to provide care for their patients. For example, video web conferences can help doctors and researchers consult with patients about sleep health. Clinicians and scientists can also share data and information with each other for research purposes.
Providing care through telehealth allows doctors to reach people who live in rural areas, away from large medical centers. Doctors can also use this technology to serve those living in countries with fewer health resources, says Gamaldo.
What Researchers Will Be Studying
While sleep disorders have always existed, they have been underdiagnosed, says Gamaldo. Researchers want to explore better ways to diagnose and treat conditions such as sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome and insomnia.
Scientists will also continue to study the effects of not getting enough sleep. Chronic sleep loss is now recognized as an epidemic in the United States growing in prevalence and severity. “Each year Americans are shaving more and more time off of the sleep they get per night,” says Gamaldo.
“More individuals are doing shift work, and people are distracted in the evening hours by cable TV with 1,000s of channels, computer streaming, binge watching, not to mention our growing dependence on mobile phones and social media.” Each generation of these devices brings a better and brighter screen that causes greater exposure to blue light that can interfere with your body clock, creating problems with sleep.
Researchers also want to study how lack of sleep and poor quality sleep impacts other conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, she says.