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OHSU scientist collaborates on new device to enhance sleep

Department of Defense-funded project will enroll clinical trial participants at sites in Seattle, Chapel Hill
A young Asian man with dark hair sleeps comfortably among beige bedding.
A device is in development that researchers hope will help enhance sleep. (Getty Images)

A sleep scientist at Oregon Health & Science University is working with researchers across the country to develop a new device to enhance deep sleep.

Funded with $4.3 million from the U.S. Department of Defense, the three-year project will involve refinement of a head-worn device to enhance the natural system of brain cleansing that occurs during sleep. Known as the glymphatic system, this brain-wide network clears metabolic proteins during sleep that would otherwise build up in the brain.

The goal is to eventually help service members and veterans overcome acute sleep deprivation and chronic sleep restriction, according to an announcement by the University of Washington and the University of North Carolina.

The project could have widespread application and benefits, said the OHSU project collaborator Miranda Lim, M.D., Ph.D., a sleep physician-researcher who is an associate professor of neurology, behavioral neuroscience and medicine in the OHSU School of Medicine. She is also an affiliate scientist with the Oregon Institute for Occupational Health Sciences at OHSU.

“It could benefit anyone who has a condition where they aren’t getting enough deep sleep,” Lim said. “There are a lot of clinical and performance-based applications for this, and a lot of potential.”

For example, she said patients with Alzheimer’s disease may benefit from the device, if it proves to be effective.

Lim is collaborating with the project’s co-principal investigator, Don Tucker, Ph.D., professor emeritus at the University of Oregon, who is developing a wireless headband that combines electroencephalography and transcranial electrical stimulation using small surface-adherent electrodes worn on the forehead. The stimulation is too small to be felt, obviously not enough to wake a person, but enough to trigger slow-wave deep sleep.

Tucker, chief executive officer of Eugene-based Brain Electrophysiology Lab, previously invented the geodesic sensor net to measure brain activity.

The new device will be used in tandem with a new method of measuring glymphatic system activity through magnetic resonance imaging.

A clinical trial will enroll 90 people at the university sites in Seattle and Chapel Hill, with initial results expected next fall. The other investigators include Dawn Kernagis, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurosurgery at UNC; Jeffrey Iliff, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and neurology, and Swati Rane, Ph.D., assistant professor of radiology, both at the UW School of Medicine; Rachael Seidler, Ph.D., professor in applied physiology and kinesiology at the University of Florida; and, Jeff Heys, Ph.D., professor and associate dean in chemical and biological engineering at Montana State University.

Iliff, who previously held a faculty position at OHSU, described the glymphatic system in a TED Talk that has been viewed more than 5 million times.

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