We’ve all done it: pressed the “send” button too quickly on that nasty e-mail, tweeted something we thought was hilarious but actually offensive, or snapped at our kids for some innocent remark they’ve made.
Chances are we did this on a day when we’ve had less than optimal sleep the night before.
Another scenario: on those rare occasions when we’ve curled up in the middle of the day to take a quick siesta, we seem to be sharper, more focused and can recall things easier once we awaken from our slumber.
Brock University psychology professor and sleep expert Kimberly Cote is conducting two research projects that will shed more light on how the brain functions when we have less – and more – sleep than usual.
And she is looking for people to participate in those projects.
The first study examines how people control their emotions when they are sleep deprived.
Past research by Cote has examined how people regulate their emotions after being deprived of sleep over relatively longer periods of time, like 36 hours in a row or spread out over a few weeks.
What’s unique about this new research, says Cote, is that it involves “a very subtle level of sleep restriction” where participants are asked to cut their sleep back to four hours for only one night.
“It’s kind of like if a student chose to stay up late to cram for an exam, but still had to make that 8 a.m. exam, ” explains Cote. “It’s what we’d call a more realistic or ‘real world’ level of sleep restriction that is commonly experienced.
“Many of us do this to ourselves often. It’s just one night, but we know that that has certain effects on well-being and performance” she says.
Participants are asked to sleep in their own bed at home, either from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m., or from 11p.m. to 7 a.m. They would then come to Cote’s Sleep Lab at Brock the next afternoon and perform a number of tasks that, among other things, involve viewing pictures designed to evoke a wide range of emotions.
Using an electroencephalogram (EEG), researchers would record and measure participants’ brain waves for “event-related potentials,” small voltage changes produced in the brain that respond to specific stimuli or events. Cote says using the EEG to go beyond merely observing behavior performance is another fairly unique aspect of her research.
While it seems intuitive that sleep-deprived people could overreact emotionally, or be mistaken in the way they view a situation, the scientific community is not unanimous in this, says Cote.
“It’s what we call a ‘two-tailed hypothesis. One hypothesis is that sleep deprivation will make you more emotionally reactive. But the second hypothesis is that you don’t care, that you’re more emotionally blunted. It could go either way.”
Napping in the name of science
The second project is a “napping” study, where participants spend a couple of afternoons in Brock’s Sleep Lab. They begin by performing tasks that involve memory, emotions and learning.
Then, depending on how they’re grouped, participants either take a short nap, a long nap, or no nap at all. They then resume their activities and are measured, in part, on their ability to recall key aspects of the earlier activities.
“A nap study is one way for us to see what aspects of sleep actually predict improvements in learning and memory,” says Cote. “What we’re saying is that those features of sleep play a functional role; they are actually reflecting the consolidation of newly-learned material. Learning happens in sleep, actually.”
People interested in participating in the two studies are invited to contact the research team for pre-screening before being approved for research. In general, participants must meet a number of requirements, including being:
• between 17 to 30 years old
• healthy, not taking any medicines that might affect sleep or alertness
• GOOD sleepers, regularly sleeping around 7-8 hours a night
• not a shift worker
• someone with English as their first language, or having learned English by eight years of age (which factors out time delays in language comprehension)
In addition, only women are needed for the first study on sleep restriction and they must be “naturally cycling,” that is, not taking any form of hormones for contraception (e.g., pills, patches or shots), because researchers are also measuring the influence of hormones on sleep and performance. Both men and women may participate in the napping study. Both studies provide a small honorarium payment for participation.
For more information, or to register for pre-screening, visit the Sleep Lab’s Facebook page or call 905-688-5550, x3795.