A/D/O by MINI | The Science of Sleep

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Technology

The Science of Sleep

How the next wave of wearables, VR devices and high-tech mattresses is aiding in the elusive quest for a good night’s sleep.

We may think of water, oil, even “human ingenuity” as our greatest natural resource. But what if it’s actually sleep? Necessary for maintaining cognitive health, regulating metabolism, and bolstering our immune system against chronic disease, sleep is imperative to human happiness and productivity. Yet, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Americans are in a sleep deficit –  while over one-third of the global population suffers from some form of sleep-related issue. Medications like Lunesta and Ambien provide short-term relief but can cause potential long-term side effects, while meditation – seen as an all-purpose curative – calms nerves, but does precious little to help would-be sleepers achieve deeper dream cycles.

This has left a gap in the $28 billion sleep industry, with scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs, designers, and even universities clamoring for an answer to chronic insomnia. The boom in sleep innovation has increased the number of devices and gadgets, but can design and tech really cure, or even help, our restlessness? And what will the future of sleep ultimately look like?

Throughout the night, the brain cycles between deep, lighter, and Rapid Eye Movement (REM)  sleep, with deeper sleep considered the more restorative cycle. “It is when the body repairs itself – muscles rebuild, nerve damage repairs, bones lengthen, human growth hormone is released,” said Shelby Harris, PsyD, author of The Woman’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia. “REM sleep is a more ‘active’ state of sleep, important for emotion and memory formation. But deep sleep is [the most] restorative for the brain.” It is also the most elusive.

Leesa is one of several new mattress startups aiming to disrupt the market

Given the amount of time we spend sleeping, brands have both a built-in consumer base and an economic incentive to invest in the sleep business, with mattress start-ups like Casper, Nectar and Leesa offering fast, easy and customizable alternatives to traditional distribution models. “Customers are looking to invest in products that do good and can help them rest better,” said Leesa representative Tess Nellis, who explained that the brand’s commitment to sustainability – a broader trend in the growing green marketplace – paired with design superiority, have been significant selling points.

These start-ups focus on the physical aspects of sleep rather than our brain’s delicate alchemy: for better or worse, this is where the disruptors step in. Finnish start-up Beddit, acquired by Apple Health in 2017, offers consumers a personalized sleep tracker in the form of a thin mattress sensor capable of charting a range of metrics, from heart rates to sleep cycles, while Italian company Balluga recently released a smart bed that boasts an anti-snoring system. But these creations pale in comparison to the promise of recent advancements in wearable tech.

The Dreem wearable headband, designed in collaboration with Fuseproject, tracks sleep patterns

Non-invasive international neurotechnology start-up Rythm is at the vanguard of the movement with Dreem, an advanced wearable launched in 2014 that tracks sleep patterns, feeding them back to users and enabling deeper sleep cycles to be achieved artificially. A collaboration with Fuseproject – the award-winning studio led by designer Yves Behar, in partnership with international experts in hardware, software, and neuroscience – Dreem’s design is reminiscent of a space-age headband.

Once activated, Dreem monitors, analyzes, and even amplifies brain activity via sound waves, utilizing a form of consumer-friendly EEG electrodes. Dreem’s sensors are then able to moderate user’s brain waves with subtle, precise frequencies piped into the inner ear, said to optimize cellular regeneration.

“We started with a vision to take cutting-edge neurotechnology solutions out of the labs and put it in the hands of consumers,” said Rythm co-founder and CEO Hugo Mercier in 2017, during the launch of an earlier iteration of Dreem. “Decades of research has already shown that when short bursts of sound (pink noise) are introduced at the right time, it enhances the density and amplitude of slow-wave-sleep, otherwise known as deep sleep.” The company is now working on several large-scale data collaborations with global doctors, researchers, and sleep experts to develop a “deeper understanding of sleep and the brain”.

The results of Dreem's electrode analysis are presented via an app

Since the launch of Dreem, the sleep wearables market has exploded, fueled in significant part by the appetites of big-box brands. Philips' SmartSleep headband, a sleep tracking and enhancing wearable that works via a disposable sensor attached behind the ear, can detect levels of "slow-wave sleep”, recreating the ideal audio conditions to maintain a deeper sleep state. Audio-equipment giant Bose has also unveiled its own Noise Masking Sleepbuds device, which connects via Bluetooth to an app that produces a series of white noise effects meant to mute intrusive stimuli. And Dutch startup NightBalance recently launched a wearable device to treat sleep apnea, by analyzing user’s sleep positions and lightly vibrating to subconsciously shift wearers to a more comfortable sleep position. 

Other smart headbands available now include Philips' SmartSleep

Frequently recommended by doctors as a sleep aid, the Fisher Wallace Stimulator, is a handheld device and headphone set cleared by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat insomnia, depression, and anxiety. Similar to Dreem, it works by infusing light electrical currents through the inner ear – producing serotonin and melatonin, while lowering cortisol, our “fight or flight” response. Part of an emerging field called Cranial Electro Stimulation Therapy, the Stimulator is one of only a handful of devices cleared to medically treat insomnia, and according to the brand is the first to be accepted by the US Medicaid program. The company also produces a device solely for sleep and relaxation called Circadia, used to wean patients off sleep medications.

“A lot of sleep medications are REM suppressors,” explained Chip Fisher, chairman at Fisher Wallace Laboratories. “They'll induce deep sleep, but also suppress REM--which is critical for a balanced night’s sleep.” Fisher Wallace currently sells between 20-50,000 devices a year, with customers boasting of a “calming effect” and better overall sleep hygiene. “People don't value sleep as much as they should. They think they can ‘tunnel through it’ – but you can't.” But can you hack your way to better sleep?

The Bose Noise Masking Sleepbuds connect via Bluetooth to play white noise

Virtual reality, called “the ultimate empathy machine”, is at the vanguard of treating sleep disorders. Notably, researchers at the Exertion Games Lab at RMIT Australia, in collaboration with PluginHUMAN’s Dr Betty Sargeant and Justin Dwyer, recently made a splash with their “VR lullaby machine” able to visualize brain waves in digital pixels, assigning each brain frequency a color and movement. The end result is a "VR screensaver" of user’s deepest sleep cycles, with participants able to recreate a personalized sleep-induced pastiche upon desire.

So far, the team has reported a sizable drop in user’s negative emotions, like fear and anxiety, and a surge of up to 13% in “serenity”. "Technology and sleep are always talked about as incompatible,” Natahan Semertzidis, a PhD researcher with RMIT University's Exertion Games Lab, told Science Daily, "our findings flip that notion upside down and show how technology can also aid rest and relaxation.” 

Eight Sleep's "pods" have a self-adjusting temperature gage to aid sleep

As the link between sleepless-ness and our plugged-in lifestyle becomes more apparent, can tech and innovative truly be the correct path? For now, there’s no slowing scientific advancement in the bedroom, care of apps, wearables, futuristic mattresses, and even implants. New York-based start-up Eight Sleep, to the acclaim of both researchers and celebrities, has even created personalized “pods”,  able to gage and mimic the ideal temperature for deep sleep. 

“Sleep industries have to embrace tech,” said Tomi Talabi, communications director for Eight Sleep, who explained there is still enormous room for improvement in the marketplace. “Mattresses provide comfort only; sleep pills reduce REM and deep sleep; sleep trackers offer data but no solutions.” And with the growth of the sleep market anticipated to swell to $102 billion by 2023, it certainly leaves something for businesses to dream about.

Text by Laura Feinstein.