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U-M opens new sleep research center to explore links between sleep, biological rhythms & mental health


New 8-bed center includes two research suites that are unique in the world
Volunteers, with and without depression, needed for many studies

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — One of the world’s first laboratories devoted solely to research on how sleep and biological rhythms influence depression, substance abuse and other aspects of mental well-being has opened at the University of Michigan Health System.

The U-M Sleep & Chronophysiology Laboratory, based at the U-M Depression Center, welcomed the first research volunteers to its new eight-bed facility this month, and is seeking many more participants for a number of research studies.

And even though the comfortable beds, fluffy down comforters and muted lighting make it look more like a cozy hotel than a research lab, the new facility is home to a number of highly scientific studies on sleep and the daily cycles known as circadian rhythms.

Two of the bedrooms, in fact, are located within suites that may be unique in the world. Called Temporal Isolation Labs, they’re designed so that a research volunteer can be closed off entirely from the outside world, unable to tell what time of day it really is.
These suites are specially equipped with banks of lights on the walls and ceiling that can be adjusted precisely by the center’s staff to simulate all times of day or night. This can allow a volunteer’s innate circadian rhythms — patterns of rest and activity in both body and mind — to be monitored or even altered temporarily. The facility can also be used for light therapy to combat problems such as depression.

Now that the laboratory has opened, on the second floor of the Rachel Upjohn Building on U-M’s East Medical Campus, director Roseanne Armitage, Ph.D., foresees that her team and colleagues will be able to discover a wealth of new knowledge about how the mind, body and brain interact to produce sleep irregularities and off-kilter circadian rhythms.

“Already, we know that people with depression, seasonal affective disorders, anxiety disorders, alcoholism, and many more conditions suffer terrible disruptions to their sleep patterns, and that in turn, a lack of good-quality sleep worsens their conditions,” says Armitage, a professor of psychiatry at the U-M Medical School. “But there are so many unanswered questions about why this happens, how early in life it begins, and how it might be treated or prevented. This lab will help us do just that.”

In all, about 80 percent of adults and teens with depression report that they have severe sleep disturbances, and those with prolonged sleep problems also tend to have worse depression over time, and a higher risk of committing suicide.

Conversely, having even a two-week period of insomnia is associated with a higher risk of developing depression later in life. Sleep problems also interfere with recovery from alcohol dependence and postpartum depression, and in children can be a risk factor for later depression.

Armitage, and the center’s associate director Robert Hoffmann, Ph.D., have been studying sleep, circadian rhythms and mood disorders for decades, including the past five years at U-M. But the new facility doubles the space for their laboratory team, and other U-M researchers, to perform such studies in infants, children, teens and adults.

The new sleep lab complements U-M’s Sleep Disorders Center, which operates outpatient sleep-disorders treatment clinics and two facilities where patients can have overnight sleep tests to diagnose sleep-breathing problems such as sleep apnea, to detect other sleep disorders, or to take part in clinical trials. Psychologist Todd Arnedt, Ph.D., a member of the faculty at both the Sleep Disorders Center and the new sleep research lab, and Director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program, specializes in treating sleep disorders through cognitive behavioral techniques.

The new lab will be staffed seven days a week, with volunteers arriving in the early evening through a special secure entrance and staying until morning, when they can shower and have breakfast before heading to work, home or school. Some might come for several nights in a row, while Temporal Isolation volunteers might stay for several days or even weeks.

Each volunteer has his or her brain waves monitored and recorded overnight, using a technique called electroencephalography or EEG, which can monitor brain activity through small electrodes pasted temporarily to the face and scalp, and linked to a sandwich-sized portable digital recorder. Some volunteers may also wear wristwatch-like devices called actigraphs during the day, to measure their movements and light exposure.

The researchers can then look at all the collected data to see if, for example, a person’s circadian rhythms are out of sync with normal clock time and the daily cycle of day and night – or if their patterns during different sleep stages are abnormal.

Research by the U-M group and others has already revealed that adolescents with depression exhibit highly irregular brain-wave patterns during sleep, and so do teens who are at risk of depression because they have a family history of it. Even babies born to mothers who have depression appear to have altered sleep and circadian rhythms, the team has found.

Now, the team is recruiting volunteers for a number of new studies. More information is available via, or 734-764-2256.

The team is also currently planning a number of other studies, including ones that will take full advantage of the Temporal Isolation suites. For instance, because research has shown that women and girls with depression tend to avoid bright light, which in turn may worsen their depression, the researchers hope to conduct a study that will let volunteers dictate how bright or dim they want the lights in the lab to be, independent of what time it actually is.

Another possibility is to study how artificial light alters a person’s natural levels of melatonin, a hormone involved in regulating circadian rhythms.

The lighting system in the suites was designed by Mojtaba Navvab, Ph.D., an illumination expert and associate professor in the U-M Taubman College of Architecture & Urban Planning, and installed by Full Spectrum Solutions of Jackson, Mich.

The fluorescent lights, which cover the full spectrum of light colors, are computer-controlled. They can be made to glow as bright as 20,000 lux, a measurement equal to the brightest sunny day, or can be dimmed to just a red glow that doesn’t register in the brain in a way that affects melatonin.

Special infrastructure such as insulated doorways, independent heating and cooling systems, and spring-loaded floor supports keeps Temporal Isolation occupants from sensing vibrations, sounds, and other cues from the rest of the building that might give away what time it is, while keeping stray electromagnetic signals from interfering with sensitive EEG measurements of brain waves.

In addition to the new facility and the existing clinical sleep labs, U-M sleep researchers also use advanced brain-imaging techniques to measure activity in different parts of the brain while volunteers perform certain tasks or respond to visual cues. They also have access to advanced genetic analysis that can look for links among depression, sleep problems and genetic variations.

Armitage notes that the new facility is allowing sleep researchers to collaborate with U-M Addiction Treatment Services specialists, and with U-M teams that treat cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other conditions that make people prone to sleep problems and depression, or that might make sleep problems and depression worse.

The bottom line? “The U-M Sleep and Chronophysiology Lab members hope to shed even more light on the link between sleep and mental illness,” she says.

Studies seeking volunteers at the U-M Sleep & Chronophysiology Lab

Want to help University of Michigan researchers learn more about the links between sleep, biological rhythms and mental health? The U-M Sleep & Chronophysiology Lab is now accepting volunteers for studies that are exploring the following questions:

* Whether sound tones played in the ear during sleep can alter the amount and quality of delta-wave (or deep) restorative sleep. This study, funded by a Cohen Family Fund grant, is seeking people between the ages of 18 and 65 who have depression or bipolar disorder. More information
* Whether a talk-therapy approach can help improve both sleep and the odds of recovery among people with alcohol dependence issues who are in recovery programs. This study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is seeking people ages 18 to 65 who have alcohol dependence and insomnia, but not depression or bipolar disorder. More information
* Whether a medication originally developed for epilepsy, and now showing promise for treating insomnia, can improve the sleep of people who are in the early stages of recovery from alcohol dependence. This study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, also seeks healthy people for comparison with volunteers who are in recovery. All volunteers must be between the ages of 20 and 40, abstaining from alcohol, and may not have depression or bipolar disorder. More information
* Whether a non-medication-based approach to improving sleep quality can help people with depression improve their symptoms. This study is seeking people ages 18 to 65 with depression and either insomnia or a problem of waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to get to sleep. Volunteers may be taking medication for depression or not. More information
* How men and women differ in the response of their slow-wave sleep patterns to a three-hour sleep delay, and what impact this has on their mood. This study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is seeking both people with depression, and healthy comparison volunteers, between the ages of 20 and 40 years. More information
* How depression in adolescence affects sleep, and what differences can be seen between physically mature teen boys and girls with and without depression. This study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is seeking teens between 13 and 18, with or without depression. More information
* How sleep and depression interact in women who are about to give birth or have recently given birth, especially among women who have depression during pregnancy or post-delivery. This study seeks women between the ages of 18 and 45 who have passed the 28th week of pregnancy or have given birth recently, and do or do not have depression. The study is funded by the Jack L. Berman, M.D. and Barbara A. Berman, Ph.D. Depression Research Fund and the Depression Center Innovation Fund.More information
* How a regulated schedule of sleeping, exposure to light and activity might affect depression susceptibility or symptoms in children. These two studies are enrolling children ages 8 to 18 years. One will include children who are at risk of depression because they have a mother, father or sibling with the condition. The other will include children who are being treated for depression but who still have symptoms. Both studies, supported by the Cohen Family Fund, will track the children for five years. More information for at-risk kids: and more information for kids with depression
* How sleep and mental state affect how a person processes emotional information. This study is seeking both people who are currently feeling sad or depressed, and people with no current or previous mental health issues. More information
Written by: Kara Gavin


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