It has perhaps never been harder for us to get our heads down. But could new technology come to the rescue?
Forward: features are independent pieces written for Mewburn Ellis discussing and celebrating the best of innovation and exploration from the scientific and entrepreneurial worlds.
Getting a good night’s sleep isn’t always easy. From technological distractions to financial uncertainty and even health concerns, many of us find it difficult to switch off in the evening.
But we’d better try harder: good sleep is just as essential to our wellbeing as regular exercise and a healthy diet.
Sleep starts and ends with the brain. At night, the brain processes information, mentally and physically restores, and rebalances the body. Sleep, or the lack of it, affects all of the body’s major physiological systems, the immune system, our mental health and our overall quality of life. It affects almost every type of tissue and function in the body, from the brain, heart and lungs to our metabolism and disease resistance. A lack of sleep also makes it harder to concentrate and slows down our responses.
What’s more, sleep is necessary for a number of brain functions, including how neurons (nerve cells) communicate with each other. Without it, the brain is unable to form and maintain the pathways that allow us to learn and create new memories. Recent research has also revealed that sleep plays an important role in eliminating toxins in the brain that have built up throughout the day.
How much sleep do we need? That depends on our age and decreases as we get older. Most adults require seven to nine hours’ sleep a night, but research suggests that the average person gets just 6.8 hours per night. However, the quality of our sleep is often more important than the quantity.
Clusters of sleep-promoting neurons in the brain become more active before slumber, while neurotransmitters (nerve-signalling chemicals) reduce the activity of cells that signal arousal, thus promoting relaxation.
During sleep, we enter several cycles of REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep, each of which is linked to specific brain waves. Non-REM sleep is light; the body relaxes, and our brain waves slow. As the cycles progress, sleep becomes deeper and the body less is responsive to outside stimuli.
We spend most of our time asleep in deep sleep, which is necessary for us to feel refreshed upon waking. Around 90 minutes after drifting off, we enter a period of REM sleep during which the brain consolidates and processes the day’s information for long-term memory storage. It’s also during this stage that we dream.
However, while sleep is crucial, it’s not always simple to achieve – especially over recent months. In April 2020, a survey by The Sleep Charity and Sleepstation revealed that 43% of respondents have been finding it harder to fall asleep, with unease around COVID-19 affecting sleep for 75% of people. For 77% of people, a lack of sleep has interfered with their ability to function during the day.
“While sleep is so crucial, it’s not always simple to achieve – especially over recent months. Unease around COVID-19 is affecting sleep for 75% of people”
Disturbed sleep can cause irritability, low mood and poor concentration. If the situation persists for more than a few months, it begins to affect a person’s daily life and health, potentially causing high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and long-term mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Many factors can disrupt sleep, including our diet (so cut out that caffeine, alcohol and nicotine before bed), certain medical conditions and medications, poor sleep routines and our environment. People with sleep trouble are also advised to remove technology from the bedroom, specifically TVs and mobile phones, as the blue light from these devices disrupts the brain’s production of melatonin – the sleep-promoting hormone – making it harder to drop off.
But what if we could use technology and our understanding of the science of sleep to design a perfect night’s sleep? App stores feature numerous options for aiding relaxation through sounds or meditation, or by letting us track our sleep cycles. Meanwhile, wearable tech such as Fitbits and Apple Watches can also record information related to how you sleep.
Crucially, that type of tech doesn’t account for changes in brain activity occurring during sleep. For deeper insights into sleep quality, lab-based sleep assessments are a common clinical tool. Patients spend the night hooked up to various sensors and machines that track brain waves, head movement, heart rate and blood oxygenation. However, that process can be quite overwhelming, and although it shows how well a subject slept – or not – on a particular night, it can’t give a true representation of ‘normal’ sleep.
Help at home
Back in 2015, the founders of Thought Beanie (which also makes a product that helps athletes improve their mental performance) saw a gap in the market for a consumer product that would help people manage and improve their sleep based on accurate, real-time data, without requiring them to undergo that potentially off-putting sleep lab experience.
From its research base at the University of Leeds, a small team set to work creating a product that mirrored the sleep lab process to allow people to monitor their sleep patterns at home. The resulting HeadRest wearable technology is not just aimed at those with sleep disorders but at anyone with a general interest in wellness and optimal human performance.
The HeadRest – which wearers experience as a visor that is worn during sleep – uses electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors to measure brain activity. It also employs unique algorithms and artificial intelligence to analyse brain waves and works with neurofeedback training to enhance sleep. Essentially, it learns the optimum sleep routine for an individual by measuring their brain wave frequency, head movement, heart rate and blood oxygen to give a complete and accurate picture of their sleep.
Perhaps counterintuitively, an important component of this approach to getting users to sleep better is noise. While the user is asleep, the HeadRest transmits an almost inaudible microsecond (ms) burst of white or pink noise at exactly the right time to stimulate slow wave sleep. This helps to optimise the duration, depth and quality of the night’s sleep.
‘White noise is comprised of an equal distribution of noise from all the possible frequencies that can be heard by the human ear; just think of static on an analogue TV. It works by creating a masking effect that drowns out other sounds – for example, sudden changes in sound frequency – that might disrupt the early stages of sleep,’ explains Thought Beanie founder Alyn Morgan.
“Experiments have shown that a short 30ms burst of pink noise played at the peak of a slow wave cycle is beneficial for improving deep sleep”
‘In contrast, pink noise is a lower sound frequency that has greater power – equivalent to the rustling of leaves, or waves at the beach. A growing number of experiments have shown that a short 30ms burst of pink noise played at the peak of a slow wave cycle [which, as part of its sleep tracking capability, HeadRest can identify] is beneficial for improving deep sleep, and that presentation of noise during deep/slow-wave sleep has a positive impact on one’s memory and learning.’
A companion app also gives HeadRest users information that lets them see how their concentration, focus levels and fatigue levels fluctuated over the time they were asleep, as well as sleep-tracking data showing what stages of sleep they were in, how long they slept in a session, how long it took them to get to sleep, and insights into how well rested they really are on waking.
‘Thought Beanie has always been about offering real-world, wearable EEG products that enable people to live their lives better – whether this means allowing them to be more mindful through enhanced meditation or to sleep better through giving them medical-grade sleep tracking and a real understanding of what (and what does not) help them get to and then remain asleep,’ says Morgan.
Asleep on the job
Sleep disruption is, understandably, a common problem for shift workers such as NHS staff, who often experience erratic work patterns and inconsistent sleep. Disturbed sleep can affect their health and productivity, and the ability to take a quick nap could be key to increasing alertness and reducing stress.
This is now being offered via the EnergyPod, the world's first chair designed for workplace napping. Looking a bit like a space-age recliner, it offers an enclosed ergonomic space which encourages users to climb in and nod off.
‘It’s scientifically proven that the ideal powernap is between 15 and 20 minutes long,’ says Christopher Lindholst, co-founder and CEO of MetroNaps, the company behind the EnergyPod, which has been piloted in a number of hospital settings.
‘During a nap you don’t fall asleep in the way you do at night in your bed; you only go into the lighter stages of sleep, so you aren’t “unconscious”. It’s a dream-like state in which your mind will wander on its own. However, a nap should be kept short, otherwise you will go into the deeper stages of sleep, resulting in sleep inertia (grogginess) when you wake up.’
Each EnergyPod uses i20 technology, a firmware developed around the principle that a 20-minute nap is enough for boosting wellbeing and productivity. Users can begin their nap with a single touch, enjoy specially composed music for optimal relaxation, and gentle waking using light and vibration. ‘The built-in MetroNaps Music is the result of extensive collaboration with an established sleep doctor and a renowned concert pianist,’ explains Lindholst. ‘The i20 system optimises a rest session by playing content unique to each of the three key phases of a short sleep experience: hypnologic (inducing); rest (maintaining); and hypnopompic (waking).’
In 2018, the A&E unit, doctors’ mess and maternity departments at the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust’s Cannock Chase and New Cross Hospitals were equipped with a number of EnergyPods in the hope that they would allow staff there to grab some much-needed rest. The pods placed in the Emergency Department proved popular, and were most used between 8am and 4pm – for instance to avoid a post-lunch slump, or just before the drive home after a night shift.
“EnergyPods placed in the Emergency Department proved popular, and were most used between 8am and 4pm”
The trial’s success led to EnergyPods being incorporated in hospitals across the country, including in the Walsall Healthcare Trust and Oxford University Foundation Hospitals, which acquired multiple EnergyPods in early 2020 as part of a larger initiative to support staff health and wellbeing. EnergyPods have also been used to give NHS staff dealing with the
COVID-19 pandemic the opportunity to rest during or after particularly long and distressing shifts.
‘As well as being used for a power nap, the pods and recliners will benefit staff who have had to deal with a distressing, challenging or stressful situation. They can take a few minutes to collect their thoughts and relax before returning to work,’ commented Catherine Griffiths, Walsall Healthcare Trust’s Director for People and Culture in April 2020.
Just like a fingerprint, every brain is unique. Each of us processes information differently, and the same diet, exercise and sleep routine can produce totally different results. Likewise, there are many ways to go about improving our sleep, from simple things such as cutting out TV and smartphone use before bed to more complex sleep-tracking devices.
Until now, technology has shouldered much of the blame for disrupting our sleep, but it might also provide the answer to some of our sleep problems. By showing us what occurs in our brains during sleep, it may now be well on the way to helping us design the perfect night’s rest – or even just grab that all-important nap to see us through the next gruelling night shift.
Opening the way for a rested workforce
Kate O'Rourke, Head of Trade Marks at Mewburn Ellis comments:
"MetroNaps was a pioneer in recognising the benefits of workplace napping and has continued to develop the technology to give workers much-needed rest. One of the key features of its EnergyPod is its timeless design, protected through trade mark and design registrations internationally to help defend the company against copycats. The EnergyPod was the first of its kind and continues to be the first choice for businesses from Google through to the NHS."
A pathfinder in personalised devices
Richard Johnson, a Partner and Patent Attorney at Mewburn Ellis comments:
"The Thought Beanie product is a good example of the current trend in integrating machine learning techniques into products that detect or monitor physiological signals. Such integrated products not only assist in recognising and responding to physiological states that were previously difficult to determine but open the door to possibility of personalised devices, in which the detection algorithms are honed over time to the specific signals of an individual. We expect to see significant activity in attempting to patent such ideas over the next few years."
Written by Kerry Taylor-Smith.
Images provided byEnergyPod
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