The first prototypes of any technology can be a little bit of people. Just ask Sofia Fluker, a test engineer at Eugene’s Brain Electrophysiology Lab.
He sits down on the table with a small flat-bottomed screwdriver, trying to put on the cover of a deck of cards the size of a deck of cards.
The screw vibrates as it rotates.
“It’s easy to fall apart if you’re not very, very slow,” he says. “It’s a very delicate process because we’ve done it all ourselves.”
The electronics housing encloses the brains of a new device called WISP, or the Wireless Interface Sensor Pod.
The origins of his DIY are obvious. The carcass attaches to what looks like a streetlight strap. The wired electrodes hang from the sides and others are in a zippered pouch on the front.
Despite the lack of elegance in this initial design, the technology itself is nothing.
WISP has the power to change the way we think about sleep.
The yawning hole of sleepless nights
WISP is a headband designed for use while you sleep. It takes advantage of brain waves to give you a better night’s rest.
One in five people in the United States has chronic sleep problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And for many of them – including new parents, night shift workers, soldiers and almost everyone as they get older – WISP can finally provide relief from sleep deprivation and sleep disruption.
“We thought that the need to sleep was something we could reduce or conquer. But really in the last two decades, we’ve begun to understand how important it is, “said Miranda Lim, a neurologist at the University of Oregon University of Health and Science.
And it’s not just how long we sleep. Quality matters.
“For decades, pharmaceutical companies have been looking for this‘ magic pill ’or‘ Holy Grail ’. They contain medications that increase sleep duration, but many of them have side effects, “he said.” These do not address the quality of sleep. “
The goal of the Lim and BEL team is to use WISP to trigger a stage of sleep known as “deep sleep” or slow-wave sleep.
“Sleep scientists, many years ago, thought that the most restorative phase of sleep is slow-wave sleep, the sleep you see in the first half of the night as soon as your head hits your pillow,” Lime said.
Brain waves are usually chaotic. Neurons are triggered in different parts of your brain as you talk, move, dream, and solve problems. It’s a cacophony of purpose. But in deep sleep, your brain waves slow down and synchronize, making you beat at slow oscillations.
WISP detects when your brain begins to fall into a deep sleep.
“[WISP users] they have a small nanocomputer next to the bed that helps detect brain waves. And that’s where we use machine learning to get to know the brain waves and what stages they are in to sleep, ”said Don Tucker, founder of BEL, a retired professor at the University of Oregon.
And this is weird.
The WISP then delivers a light electrical stimulus to different parts of the head.
“He sees it at that particular moment [the slow waves starting]the device will attach to them and stimulate the brain to make them bigger and last longer, ”Lim said.
WISP stimulation and synchronization only takes a few minutes.
“The interesting thing is that once we do that, the slow oscillations of the brain continue throughout the night. It’s like if we start and start natural rhythms, ”Tucker said.
Finding the right paradigm
The BEL team did not find this oddity in neurobiology, but these slow waves were able to isolate and direct them.
WISP has been tested by a few people in Oregon so far, and the results are promising.
So much so that it has caught the attention of the U.S. military, which has recently linked the disarmament of soldiers to accidents, traumatic brain injury, PTSD and suicide.
The military is now funding a second round of clinical trials, allocating $ 4.3 million between WISP and other research related to the project.
As they prepare, BEL engineers are working hard to develop a new prototype that will be a little more stylish, elegant and comfortable.
Life can change if WISP gives people better sleep at night, but the work is still in its infancy.
“The concept is that you facilitate what already exists,” said Lisa Marshall, a neuroscientist at Lübeck University in Germany, who conducted early research on the phenomenon but is not associated with the BEL project. “It simply came to our notice then [the stimulus is] quite individualized in topography and time and all that, it could have very good potential ”.
The extent of this potential will be revealed in human tests, and a total of 90 people will be enrolled this summer at the University of Washington and the University of North Carolina. And yet, more refinement will probably be needed.
“[You] you may need to find the right paradigm. Maybe you use it for three days and then stop and start again. There may be an optimum, “Marshall said.” It’s usually a matter of adapting the body to any external influences.
This situation is not remembered
If effective, it is likely that it will be a few years before WISP becomes available, although BEL expects to market the device as a sleep aid. But this story of Pacific Northwest innovation is so much more than just feeling rested and alert in the morning.
“We think it’s important to improve deep sleep for everyone over the age of 30 and not younger,” Tucker said.
This is because of the connection between deep sleep and the way human beings create, organize, and store different types of memories.
“As I get older, I can see that your memory is not so good for all the incidents that happen during the day. And there’s a lot of evidence that part of that is because you’re losing the ability to sleep soundly, ”he said. “We believe that sleep is one of the ways to improve the brain function of an aging population.”
Tucker isn’t just talking about our keys where we left off our keys or talking about that secret ingredient in Grandma’s pot of cake.
Recent findings in neuroscience are linking sleep deprivation to much more serious memory disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.
The findings involve a part of the brain that we didn’t really know until a decade ago. It is called the lymphatic system, which is thought to be a type of cerebral circulatory system. Instead of blood, the lymphatic system circulates cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).
Jeffrey Iliff is a collaborator on a larger project that includes WISP testing. VA is studying neurodegeneration at Puget Sound and the University of Washington, and in 2012 was part of a team that first identified the lymphatic pathways.
“The lymphatic system has been described as a way to cleanse the waste that the brain accumulates during the day,” he said.
These proteins and other metabolic wastes are byproducts of normal brain function. This work of removing the debris from the lymphatic system is a phenomenon that Iliff calls “brainwashing.” It is most effective in deep sleep in slow motion.
When this brainwashing gets in the way, perhaps due to a lack of deep sleep, Iliff said the waste is not being cleaned effectively. And it is believed that the accumulation of some of these by-products plays a major role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
This science is so new that most of what we know about the lymphatic system comes from what researchers have observed in mice.
“Right now the lymphatic system is an enigma. We know it exists in mice. We believe it exists in people and we have some evidence. but we really don’t know what it’s like. We don’t know how it works, ”said Swati Rane Levendovszky, director of the Diagnostic Imaging Sciences Center at the University of Washington.
It is still impossible to draw clear lines linking sleep, lymphatics, and dementia.
“We still don’t have a smoking gun that says ‘Yes, the deterioration of this process is causing Alzheimer’s disease in human populations.’
In science, if you can’t measure something, you can’t really understand it.
There’s the MRI imaging work associated with Rane Levendovszky’s WISP trials.
“MRI is my window to their brain,” he explained.
At the University of Washington Medical Center, Rane Levendovszky is developing non-invasive ways to measure the flow of the human lymphatic system after a good night’s sleep.
“We know that the lymphatic system has many components. CSF cleansing is happening across the (outside) brain. It occurs through the blood vessels in the brain. And then there’s an ingredient where the fluid moves inside the brain tissue and then flows out. So we’re trying to see if we can target each of these components using different MRI methods, ”he said.
WISP tests are a great option for this, as slow, synchronized deep-wave sleep is when the lymphatic system pulls out the most garbage.
“We’re trying to … look at the system from different angles in order to capture some of its parts. And then put the pieces of the puzzle together and take a picture of the gymphatics and how it works,” he said.
If the group’s hypothesis holds, sleep deprivation will disrupt the lymphatic system, and improving deep sleep will work even better. Ideally, Rane Levendovszky’s new MRI techniques will be able to measure lymphatic flow in both cases.
Techniques can open shutters on lymphatic science.
“They have implications that go beyond this research … Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s and headaches and strokes and all sorts of other conditions,” Iliff said.
Rane Levendovszky said he also sees potential for clinical application. It predicts the time when regular MRI scans are performed on people over the age of 65 to measure how the lymphatic system works.
“Okay, that could be a sign that you’re at risk for Alzheimer’s,” he said. “So you can help in the beginning, maybe slow down the progression of the disease. And maybe someday, develop a technology or therapy that can prevent that … at a later stage. “
And if getting a better night’s sleep helps prevent the disease, this technology could be something like Don Tucker’s WISP headband, improving our sleep tonight and in the future.
“One of the questions is, can we keep it for weeks and months and really change the aging process of someone’s brain? Can we create younger brains by helping to synchronize deep sleep?” He asked.
And maybe if we sleep better, we’ll age better too.
This story was originally published by Oregon Public Broadcasting.