Sleep researchers go beyond treatment of sleep disorders

Sleep researchers go beyond treatment of sleep disorders

Since its inception three years ago and particularly since moving to its own dedicated space at Wesley Woods Geriatric Hospital, the Emory Sleep Disorders Program has gone beyond its role of diagnosing and treating sleep disorders in patients referred to the program. Under the direction of Donald Bliwise, the program has garnered a reputation for being one of the major sites for sleep research in the country.

Conditions treated at the program include insomnia, snoring, sleep apnea (diminished breathing in sleep), narcolepsy (falling asleep uncontrollably during the day), restless leg syndrome, and parasomnias such as sleepwalking, sleeptalking, sleep terrors, toothgrinding, sleep paralysis and nocturnal seizures.

Bliwise is one of only a handful of Ph.D.s certified as a specialist in sleep disorders by the American Board of Sleep Medicine. He works in tandem with David Rye, medical director of the Sleep Laboratory and one of the nation's only board-certified sleep specialists holding both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees. In addition to treating patients with sleep disorders, Rye is heavily focused on basic science sleep research. Both scientists are faculty members in the Department of Neurology in the School of Medicine.

A night in the Sleep Lab

The majority of patients referred to the Sleep Lab for testing are asked to spend one night in the lab to undergo a sleep study. While they sleep (or try to sleep), patients are carefully monitored. Breathing, heart beat, brainwave activity, and even chin and leg movement are recorded. Patients often remain at the lab the next day for a series of nap tests that are part of a multiple sleep latency test.

"The purpose of the night study is to examine sleep stages and sleep architecture, with particular emphasis on rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the stage of sleep most often associated with dreaming," Bliwise said. "The daytime nap test evaluates daytime alertness."

Normal sleep patterns are characterized by alternating states of REM and nonrapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. During REM sleep, which makes up about 20 percent of a night's sleep, dreams occur and muscles become almost paralyzed. Sleep requirements vary widely among individuals; some adults require more than 10 hours of sleep a night while others need only six or seven hours.

The insomnias

"Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep--commonly termed `insomnia'--plagues one in three American adults," according to literature from the American Sleep Disorders Association (ASDA). According to a nationwide study conducted by the Association of Sleep Disorders Centers, physical ailments, such as disorders of breathing or muscle activity, were the cause of more than half of all cases of persistent insomnia."

-- Lorri Preston

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