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Light sleepers

Researchers at the University of New Mexico have a new high-tech venue to study the effects of light on how and when you sleep.

A room at UNM Hospital in Albuquerque is set to become the site of studies that could have implications for a wide range of sleep disorders including those that affect the elderly, people with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, post-operative patients and plain old night-owls, said Lee Brown, MD, professor of internal medicine and director of the UNM Hospitals Sleep Disorders Center.

UNM Health Sciences Center faculty and a research group with the UNM Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering have worked together to custom design and equip the room with a “smart lighting” system that can act like natural daylight, changing in its quality and intensity throughout the day.

“There’s a whole host of experiments that have never been done that this system allows for,” Brown said.

It’s part of a multi-year project involving UNM, Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pa., and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center in Troy, NY.

The concept of light as therapy for sleep disorders isn’t new, but most studies have been conducted exposing test subjects to a light encased in some form of box.

“They have people sitting in front of these things in a very artificial environment. This is a very much more natural environment,” said Professor Steve Brueck UNM Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering, who is the UNM lead for the Lighting Enabled Systems and Applications (LESA) project. To his knowledge, Brueck said, there have been no scientific studies using a room with a lighting system like the one at UNM Hospital.

“There isn’t one of these rooms in a clinical setting anywhere,” Brown said, “This is unique.”

The researchers are seeking $1.7 million in grant funding from the National Science Foundation which will enable them to do a pilot study with students – young people typically go to bed late and struggle to rise early – to see how exposure to the carefully calibrated light in the room can reset their biological clock.

“It’s not breaking new ground in terms of how you treat these individuals but it is breaking new ground in that we’re doing it in this room with ‘smart lighting,’ ” Brown said.

He said previous studies have shown that varying forms of lighting regimens can have an effect on a whole range of physical and mental disorders that disrupt sleep patterns.

Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Associate Professor Meeko Oishi is particularly interested in how exposure to this type of lighting scenario could be used with people who suffer traumatic brain injuries who temporarily experience sleep problems.

“It may be that by treating them with smart lighting after they’re out of intensive care it might help them recover more quickly,” Brown said.