Sleep Science: Researchers in the Northwest Pacific Explore the Secrets of a Good Night’s Rest

Early prototypes of any technology can be a little naive. Just ask Sofia Fluck, a test engineer at the Eugene Brain Electrophysiology Laboratory.

She sits hunched over her desk with a small orange flat-blade screwdriver, trying to replace the electronics box lid with the size of a deck of cards.

The screw swings as she spins it.

“It’s easy to fall out if you’re not very, very slow,” she says. “It’s a very delicate process because we just did it all ourselves.”

The electronics case contains the brains of a new device called WISP – or Wireless Interface Sensor Pod.

Its DIY origins are pretty obvious. The body attaches to something that looks like a headlight strap. The cable electrodes hang on the side and others are placed in a zippered bag on the front.

Despite the elegance of this early design, the technology itself is anything but.

WISP has the potential to change the way we think about sleep.

The gaping hole of sleepless nights

WISP is a headband designed to be worn during sleep. It uses brain waves to give you a better night’s rest.

This early prototype of WISP showed great promise in initial human tests. The device is designed to improve the quality of sleep – especially deep sleep.

One in five people in the United States suffers from 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 all as they get older – WISP can ultimately provide relief from sleep deprivation and disturbed sleep.

“We thought the need for sleep was something we could minimize or overcome. But really, over the last few decades, we’ve begun to understand how important this is, “said neurologist Miranda Lim of the University of Oregon Health and Science.

And it doesn’t matter just how long we sleep. Quality matters.

“Pharmaceutical companies have been looking for this ‘magic pill’ or ‘Holy Grail’ for decades. They have drugs that increase the total duration of sleep, but many of them have side effects, “she said.” They do not relate to the quality of sleep. “

The goal of Lim and the BEL team is to use WISP to influence a stage of sleep known as “deep sleep” or slow wave sleep.

“Sleep scientists for many years believe that the most restorative phase of sleep is slow sleep, the sleep you usually see in the first half of the night as soon as your head hits the pillow,” Lim said.

Brain waves are usually chaotic. Neurons ignite in different parts of your brain as you talk, move, dream, and solve problems. This is a purposeful cacophony. But during deep sleep, your brain waves slow down and synchronize, pulsing in slow oscillations.

WISP detects when your brain is just beginning to go into deep sleep.

“[WISP users] have a small nanocomputer next to your bed that helps detect brain waves. And there we use machine learning to be able to recognize brain waves and tell them what stage of sleep they are in, “said BEL founder Don Tucker, a retired professor at the University of Oregon.

And here it gets weird.

WISP then delivers a light electrical stimulus to various areas of the head.

“It simply came to our notice then [the slow waves starting]the device will attach to them and stimulate the brain to make them bigger and last longer, ”said Lim.

It only takes a few minutes of WISP stimulation and synchronization.

“The interesting thing was that once we did that, the slow oscillations of the brain continued throughout the night. It’s as if we’re starting natural rhythms and maintaining them, “Tucker said.

Finding the right paradigm

The BEL team has not discovered this oddity of neurobiology, but they have been able to isolate and point out where these slow waves come from.

So far, they have tested WISP on several people in Oregon, and the results are promising.

So much so that it caught the attention of the U.S. military, which recently linked sleep deprivation in soldiers to accidents, traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide.

The military is currently funding a second round of clinical trials, contributing $ 4.3 million divided between WISP and other research related to the project.

In preparation, BEL engineers are busy developing a new prototype that will be a little more elegant, stylish and comfortable.


BEL’s WISP headphones will be tested in new human trials in the summer of 2022 at the University of Washington. Before they begin, BEL engineers are creating a new prototype of laser-cut foam designed for fit, comfort, electrode placement and a little style.

It can change lives if WISP provides and provides sleep deprived people with a better night’s rest, but the work is still at an early stage.

“The concept is that you’re facilitating what’s already there,” said Lisa Marshall, a neurologist at the University of Lübeck in Germany who has done early research on the phenomenon but is not involved in the BEL project. “If [the stimulus is] sufficiently individualized in terms of topography and weather, and all of this can have very good potential. “

The extent of this potential will be revealed during human trials, which are expected to enroll a total of 90 people this summer at the University of Washington and the University of North Carolina. And even then, more refinement is likely to be needed.

“[You] you may need to find the right kind of paradigm. Maybe use it for three days and then stop and then start again. There may be an optimum, “Marshall said. “Usually there is an adaptation of the body to any external influence. And some parameters will probably have to be changed. “

This unremembered state

If effective, it will probably be years before WISP becomes widely available, although BEL hopes to launch the device as a sleep aid. But this story of innovation in the Pacific Northwest is about much more than feeling more rested and awake in the morning.

“We believe that improving deep sleep is important for anyone over the age of 30 who is not getting younger,” Tucker said.

This is due to the connection between deep sleep and the way people create, organize and store different types of memories.

“As you get older, as I can confirm, your memory is not so good for all the incidents that happen during the day. And there’s a lot of good evidence that part of it is because you’re losing your ability to sleep soundly, “he said. “We believe that sleep is one way to improve the brain function of an aging population.”

Tucker isn’t just talking about memories like where we left our keys or that secret ingredient in Grandma’s pie.

Recent discoveries in neurology have linked sleep deprivation to much more serious memory impairments such as Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

The findings include a part of the brain that we didn’t really know existed until about a decade ago. It is called the glymphatic system, which can be considered as a type of circulatory system in the brain. Instead of blood, the glymphatic system circulates cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

Jeffrey Ilif is a contributor to a larger project that includes WISP testing. He studied neurodegeneration at VA Puget Sound and the University of Washington and was part of the team that first identified glymphatic pathways in 2012.


OHSU neurologist Miranda Lim (right) consults engineer Sofia Fluke at BEL in Eugene.

“The glymphatic system has been described as a way for the brain to wash away the waste that accumulates during the day,” he said.

These proteins and other metabolic wastes are a byproduct of normal brain function. This work of garbage removal by the glymphatic system is a phenomenon that Ilif calls “brainwashing.” This happens most effectively during deep, slow-wave sleep.

When this brainwashing was stopped – probably due to lack of deep sleep – Ilif said the waste was not cleaned as efficiently. And the accumulation of some of these by-products is thought to play a major role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Measure for measure

This science is so new that much of what we know about the glymphatic system comes from what researchers have observed in mice.

“The glymphat system is a mystery right now. We know it exists in mice. We believe it exists in humans and we have some evidence. but we really don’t know what it looks like. We don’t know how it works, “said Swati Rane Levendowski, director of the Center for Diagnostic Imaging at the University of Washington.

It is still impossible to draw clear lines linking sleep, glymphatics and dementia.

“We still don’t have a smoking gun that says, ‘Yes, damage to this process contributes to Alzheimer’s disease in human populations.’ “The reason we don’t have this smoking gun is because we haven’t had a good way to measure this function in human populations in a reasonable way,” Ilif said.

In science, if you can’t measure something, you can’t really understand it.

This is where Rane Levendovszky’s MRI work on WISP experiments is broad.

“MRI is my window to their brain,” she explained.


WISP monitors brain waves during sleep to know when to apply a light electrical stimulus to the head.

At the University of Washington Medical Center, Rane Levendowski is developing non-invasive ways to measure the flow of the glymphatic system in humans after a good night’s sleep.

“We know that the glymphatic system has many different components. CSF lavage is performed along (outside) the brain. It occurs along the blood vessels in the brain. And then there is a component in which the fluid moves into the brain tissue and then drains away. So we’re trying to see if we can target each of these components using different MRI methods, “she said.

WISP trials are the perfect opportunity for this, because the slow, synchronized waves of deep sleep are when the glymphatic system dumps the most garbage.

“We are trying … to see the system from many different angles, hoping to capture part of it. And then put the pieces of the puzzle together and have a picture of the glimpse and how it works, ”she said.

If the team’s hypothesis is valid, sleep disturbance will disrupt the glymphatic system, and improving deep sleep will make it work even better. Ideally, Rane Levendowski’s new MRI techniques will be able to measure glymphatic flow in both cases.

Techniques could open the proverbial covers of glymphatic science.

“They have consequences that go beyond this study – to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, headaches, concussions and all sorts of other conditions,” Ilif said.

Rane Levendowski said he also sees potential for clinical use. It predicts a time when people over the age of 65 receive routine MRIs to assess how well their glymphatic system is working.

“This may be an indication that you are at risk for Alzheimer’s,” she said. “So you can help in the beginning, maybe slow down the progression of the disease. And maybe at some point develop a technology or therapy that can just prevent it … at a later stage. “

And if better deep sleep can help prevent disease, this technology may look like Don Tucker’s WISP headband, improving our sleep tonight and in the future.

“One of the questions is: Can we continue this for weeks and months and really change the aging process of someone’s brain?” Can we make our brains younger by helping them synchronize in deep sleep? he asked.

And maybe if we sleep better, we will grow older and better.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting

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