Sleep: A (very) short history

November 13, 2017 Suzanne

1953 sounds like a long time ago, but in the evolution of science it’s a blink of an eye. In April, 1953 Watson and Crick published their famous paper on the structure of DNA in Nature Magazine. It would revolutionize  modern medicine, not to mention forensic and other sciences. Watson, Crick and Wilkins would go on to win a Nobel Prize for that discovery.

Some 6 months later in September, 1953, sleep research began with the discovery of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Prior to that, sleep research was widely considered “the dregs” of scientific research. Why would anyone study sleep? You close your eyes and fall asleep, nothing happens and then you wake up. What’s to study?

Professor Nathaniel Kleitman and his graduate student, Eugene Aserinsky at the University of Chicago wanted to find out. Aserinsky studied the brain waves and eye movements of people sleeping during the night in his lab. He generated miles of printed brainwave and eye movement data that he had to analyze. It was long and boring. Years later he described his motives:

         According to my anti-intellectual “Golden Manure” theory of discovery, a painfully
        accurate, well-focused probe of any minutiae is almost certain to divulge a heretofore
        unknown nugget of science. This was the philosophy that propelled me to make
        continuous measures of eye movements while people slept. It was also a credo of desperation.

Aserinsky’s discovery of REM sleep was described by leading French sleep researcher at the time, Michel Jouvet, as similar to discovering a “new continent in the brain”. This was more than discovering that the brain was active during sleep or that our eyes “jerked around” during several REM episodes at night. This was a whole new state of being. Aserinsky found that during REM sleep our brains are wide awake but our bodies are frozen, we cannot move during REM sleep, but we dream.

Of course it is one thing to discover a continent, but it is another to explore it. Aserinsky’s fellow graduate student, William Dement took up the challenge. In 1957, Kleitman and Dement published an article describing 4 distinct sleep stages and REM sleep and how brain waves changed throughout each stage. They noted that the 4 cycles of non-REM sleep followed by REM sleep would repeat itself several times during the night. That 1957 paper defined sleep in a standardized way and has remained largely unchanged today. 

For the next few decades (the 1950’s through the 1970’s) sleep research struggled with gaining credibility and acceptance in the scientific and medical community. William Dement took the lead and for his efforts was later crowned the “Father of Sleep Medicine”. In 1963 he moved to Stanford University and joined the Psychiatry Department where he continued to pioneer sleep research. In 1970 he founded the first sleep laboratory. At the press conference to announce the world’s first sleep lab – one reporter showed up. By 1975 there were 5 sleep laboratories in the United States studying sleep.

Dement and his colleagues soon learned that many patients did not exhibit “normal” sleep patterns. Their sleep stages were messed up. Dement and his colleagues would go on to begin the process of defining and understanding sleep disorders. It was a long process.

In the summer of 1988 William Dement approached a congressional group to seek funding for sleep disorder research. He received chuckles and a flat denial. The answer: There were simply too few doctors in the United States studying and working on sleep research to justify any congressional funding.

Undeterred, Dement and his colleagues persevered. Sleep research began to expand. More and more researchers became interested. In 1991, the National Sleep Foundation was founded. That year 18,000 people requested information on sleep and sleep disorders from them, and that was pre-internet. Today sleep disorders are considered a national health problem.  

As research and knowledge grew, the scientific community and the general public became more and more aware of the effects of sleep disorders and poor sleep on health, safety and performance. This was buoyed in 2007 when sports teams and athletes became more interested in sleep and how it affects athletic performance. Today there are thousands of sleep labs and researchers globally studying sleep and the consequences of poor or inadequate sleep. But, sleep is still a “new” science and is evolving. It is married to the science of chronobiology – the study of how time of day affects biological functions. Both are showing exponential growth in research. But, sleep came late to the science party and there is much catching up to do.