WSU team works to make our world safer, one night at a time

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Hans Van Dongen knows exactly how critical shut-eye is to human health. He directs one of the most advanced sleep and performance research centers in the world and has led major sleep studies for the U.S. military, the Department of Transportation and the airline industry, among others.

When Van Dongen joined Washington State University’s health sciences campus in 2005, he determined to focus on how sleep and sleep loss play out in the real world.

Among the innovations Van Dongen and his team have developed is a drowsy-driver detection device. Developed from 2010 to 2011 and recently patented, the device offers an inexpensive and user-friendly technology that helps catch fatigue earlier by measuring a signal generated from the movement of the steering wheel. Van Dongen is currently working to move the device to the commercial marketplace.

A backdrop for innovation

The 10,000 square-foot Sleep and Performance Research Center in Spokane is the focal point for much of the sleep research conducted by Van Dongen’s team. The research is a prime example of WSU’s Grand Challenges initiative, part of which is focused on research related to sustaining health.

At the research facility, which features a four-bedroom suite, study subjects stay anywhere from four days to three weeks, allowing Van Dongen and his team to carefully study the effects of sleep and sleep loss on cognitive functioning. The lab’s integrated sleep/wake/work facility is the only of its kind in the world.

“This lab was built with the specific purpose of doing research at the intersection between basic science, looking at what goes wrong in the brain when you’re not getting enough sleep and what gets fixed in the brain when you do get enough sleep, and how sleep and sleep loss play out in the real world,” Van Dongen says.

The findings

Through his research, Van Dongen has witnessed the effects of sleep loss, both short term and long term. And what his team has found has a major impact on, well, everyone.

“There’s so much research going on right now. We’ve learned that if you don’t get enough sleep, it has short-term consequences,” he says. “You’ll make more errors, you’ll feel less well and your mood might deteriorate.”

The research has also confirmed that repeated sleep loss can cause a variety of ills, from sleep disorders to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weight issues, metabolic problems, gastrointestinal illness and cancer.

That said, there are still many questions to be answered.

“We’re not 100 percent sure yet exactly how you get from the short-term effects to these long-term effects, other than we know it happens,” Van Dongen says. “And the difficulty in that regard is, of course, to really nail that down you need to follow people for multiple weeks to multiple years, and that kind of research is very costly and difficult to do.”

The WSU researchers currently are focusing on the effects of short-term sleep loss, particularly the connection between worker fatigue and decision-making in 24/7 industries with long hours, high workloads or both. The goal, Van Dongen says, is to change the conditions that lead to on-the-job accidents or worse.

“Think accidental disasters like Chernobyl and the Space Shuttle Challenger,” he says. “Both [were] precipitated by human error affected by inadequate sleep.”

The impact

While research is ongoing, Van Dongen and his team already have made a big impact in the world of sleep study. The team recently concluded a multiple-phase research project for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that led to the implementation of new federal regulations increasing the rest periods for truck drivers working night shifts.

“That’s the full trajectory of taking research all the way from the lab into the actual real world and showing that it makes a difference,” Van Dongen says. “And that’s an exciting trajectory.”

Advances such as this project and the drowsy-driver project keep Van Dongen motivated. He knows that his, and his colleagues’ research, make differences that improve lives.

“Fatigued workers cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars a year. Not all of that could be recovered simply by saying that we need to sleep more because the economy operates 24 hours a day,” he says. “But can we do better? And the answer is we can.”

Learn more about how Washington State University researchers untangle complex problems to enrich quality of life for us all.