Sleep Awareness Week Interview with Clifford Saper

Sleep Disorder

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Who wouldn’t enjoy an extra hour or two of sleep before climbing out of bed and getting ready for work? A good night’s rest, or lack thereof, not only contributes to the following day’s productivity levels and emotions, but also its long-term effects are linked to cognitive and cardiovascular health. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one third of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep each night, and research points sleeping less than seven to eight hours each night to health risks such as stroke, obesity, cancer, and high blood pressure.

For National Sleep Awareness Week (April 23 – 29), we asked sleep expert Clifford B. Saper, M.D., Ph.D., to discuss the importance of sleep hygiene, sleep disorders, and current research at Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine, where he conducts his lab research and heads the neurology department. Saper is also a Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives member and past Dana Foundation grantee.

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Sleep Disorders as Prologue to Disease: From the Archives

What a (incremental) difference seven years make. In 2009, when we wrote about Dana Alliance member David Holtzman’s work, the headline was “Could Sleep Disorders Contribute to Alzheimer’s?” This month, Scientific American describes the work he and colleagues at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are doing using the headline “Why Sleep Disorders May Precede Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.” We’ve gone from “maybe take a look” to “what’s the mechanism” on evidence for a link between sleep troubles and risk for neurodegenerative disorders has come.

Scientific American’s Simon Makin calls the Holtzman lab’s 2009 discovery the “best evidence for a causal relationship” From our story:

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Mysteries of the Sleeping Brain

SleepPunching your fist through a window and eating a snack in bed are drastically different behaviors, but both could be considered effects of parasomnia–a disorder characterized by abnormal or unusual behavior of the nervous system during sleep.

Exploring and explaining different types of parasomnia were Elizabeth Hand, author of award winning gothic nonfiction books, and Columbia University neurologist Carl Bazil, M.D., Ph.D., at a program last Friday night at the Rubin Museum in New York City. Hand talked about the impact that her lasting parasomnia has had on her life. Paired with Bazil for a program in the museum’s Brainwave series, her curiosity about her very real reactions to dreams and night terrors (such as the aforementioned window punching) made for a lively discussion with Bazil about the science behind her actions.

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Need a basketball edge? Sleep on it

Professional athletes are creatures of habit, especially on
game days. From the timing of their pre-game meals to how they arrive at the
stadium to the kind of music they listen to in the locker room, they usually
stick to a routine. This makes it all the more surprising that several NBA
teams are dropping a nearly 40-year-old game-day tradition.

The Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail
Blazers, and Denver Nuggets have done
away with the morning shoot-around
, a practice that has been around since
1971. Other teams are also experimenting without it, though they have yet to get
rid of it completely.

If there’s one man responsible for this change, it’s Charles
Czeisler, known around the league as “the Sleep Doctor.” Czeisler recommends
that players sleep at least eight hours a night, saying that performance will
be reduced with insufficient rest. Given that players don’t usually get to sleep
before 2 a.m. after a game, by that logic a 9 a.m. shoot-around the following
morning clearly doesn’t allow for enough sleep.

The Dana Guide to
Brain Health notes
that sleep “serves a vital purpose for the brain.” Reviewing
material early in the morning may not be all that beneficial if players were up
late the night before. If players are well-rested, however, they are more
likely to benefit from new information since “sleep not only consolidates new
learning but may even improve it.”

Celtics head coach Doc Rivers, who eliminated morning
shoot-arounds before the start of this season, said his team’s practices have
been better this year. Boston is a conference-best 22-5 this season.

It’s hard to believe it took NBA teams this long to realize
that performance would improve if players got a sufficient amount of sleep. Then
again, with routines being so integral to professional sports, players, and
coaches are often too stubborn to deviate from a schedule once it is

But as the Dana Guide says, “One important function of sleep
is to maintain our capacity to keep our body and brain temperature within a
narrow range in order to face the challenges of the day.” Good luck guarding
LeBron James on a bad night’s sleep.

—Andrew Kahn

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