UW-Madison: Can sleep device give deep-space explorers a good night’s rest?

Contact: Susan Lampert Smith

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Sleep-enhancing headband tested in NASA-funded study

            MADISON, Wis. – The Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness (WISC) will be one of two sites for testing a device that might improve sleep and thus waking performance for people on long space voyages.

The device is available commercially as the Philips SmartSleep Deep Sleep Headband, and the first prototype was conceived of by Dr. Giulio Tononi, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health about 15 years ago.

“It was like having an amplifier strapped to your head,’’ say Dr. Brady Riedner, WISC assistant research director, of an early prototype. He and other members of the lab worked with Philips to build the algorithms that teach the device to detect when the brain is in its deepest levels of sleep. The headband then enhances the sleep by emitting an auditory tone that is in sync with those deep waves, like “a metronome for the brain.”

Tononi’s research was the catalyst for the conceptualization and development of the device as a consumer product by Philips. The Philips SmartSleep Deep Sleep Headband was made available for purchase in the United States in the fall of 2018. A similar research version of the headband is being tested for the study funded by the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), a virtual institute of NASA. TRISH is also funding an arm of the trial at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

For the TRISH-funded trial, the Wisconsin Institute hopes to enroll 25 healthy volunteers, ages 25 to 45, who will wear the headbands when they sleep at home. Because astronauts might only sleep in short bursts, and need to be alert when awakened, Riedner explains that NASA is interested in ways of enhancing the quality of sleep to improve astronauts’ cognition when they are awake.