Got insomnia? There's an app for that

Alex Doman

Story by Jamie Lampros
(Standard-Examiner correspondent)
Mon, Aug 19, 2013
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OGDEN — What a bunch of hooey.

That was my initial reaction when I started listening to the Sleep Genius, a new Apple app designed to help you get to sleep faster, deeper and longer.

Alex Doman, the chief scientist for Sleep Genius and founder of Advanced Brain Technologies in Ogden, compares the app to being rocked to sleep, with the use of sounds and rhythms and “pink noise.” All you have to do is download the app for $4.99 and push the play button.

So that’s what I did.

During the first minute or so, I actually felt more awake than I did when I began listening to the program, which consisted of viola, piano and ocean sounds. I even felt a little restless, but I closed my eyes and continued listening as my cat nestled peacefully at my feet.

About three minutes into the program, I was wide awake and decided the Sleep Genius wasn’t working for me. In fact, I was getting annoyed and thought to myself, “What a bunch of hooey.” I rolled over, turned my light out and continued listening. It wasn’t long before I started to feel more relaxed than I’ve felt in months. I don’t remember moving a single muscle for the next eight hours.

I also put my pregnant daughter, her husband and my best friend and her husband to the test. All but one — who admitted to drinking a caffeinated beverage late in the afternoon — slept soundly using the Sleep Genius.

So, how does it work?

Doman said the app, which was created using information garnered during research to help NASA astronauts sleep, uses neurosensory algorithms that trigger a motion-induced sensation, like a baby being rocked to sleep.

Scientifically composed “psychoacoustic” music, which uses low frequency, tone and tempo, helps induce sleep, and binaural beats engage regions of the brain to maintain sleep by matching the waveforms that characterize all four stages of sleep.

Plus, ambient noise, or “pink noise,” creates a sonic wall that blocks out distracting noises as well as lowering activity in the brain’s arousal centers. White noise, Doman said, has been shown to have zero effect on the brain’s sleep centers.

The vestibular system

The initial NASA study was looking at the common problem of insomnia in astronauts, said Dr. Seth S. Horowitz, a neuroscientist in Warwick, R.I., also involved with Sleep Genius.

“Insomnia can have serious effects on cognitive abilities, which is a real problem when you are involved in something as potentially dangerous as space work,” he said in an email interview. “One of the systems most profoundly affected by weightlessness is the vestibular system, which underlies balance.”

Although the usual suspect in sleep problems is environmental light levels, Horowitz said, scientists have long discussed a possible link between the vestibular system — that sensory system involving balance and spatial orientation — and sleep. Consider, for example, the process of rocking a baby to sleep or shaking the child awake.

“We found a direct anatomical link between parts of the brain that process vestibular signals and elements in the brain’s global sleep network and followed up, showing that rocking or vibrating animals at different rates could change their sleep cycles,” he said.

Horowitz said the science behind Sleep Genius is based on two factors. First, the vestibular or balance system is a powerful driver of the global sleep network in the brain.

“You can see this yourself if you know anyone, especially babies, who regularly fall asleep in moving cars,” he said. “Second, your sense of hearing’s still running even when you are asleep, and the right sounds can trigger the vestibular system. Sleep Genius combines several auditory and vestibular elements to induce and maintain normal sleep.”

Adapting the app

Sleep Genius was a collaborative effort, said Doman and Horowitz.

The initial work of generating the algorithm and showing how it could be mixed with music to create a functional sleep inducer was done by Horowitz and Lance Massey, a composer and programmer who created the T-Mobile ring tone.

Doman put together the team and the distribution system to turn it into a functioning app that would work over mobile devices.

“In an ad hoc clinical trial, Sleep Genius improved sleep behavior in 77 percent of participants,” Doman said.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, 40 million Americans have a chronic sleep disorder and 60 percent of adults report having trouble sleeping a few nights each week. In addition, 70 percent of children under the age of 10 have sleep issues, and 77 percent of college students have trouble sleeping.

Doman said lack of sleep comes at a very high cost. In the short term, lack of sleep affects our judgment, mood and the ability to learn and retain information.

“And it can increase our risk for accidents,” he said. “In the long term, it can cause a host of health problems including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression and obesity. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control has named insufficient sleep as a public epidemic.”

No side effects

Doman said the program has no risks or side effects, unlike sleep aids, which he said may make people more restful during the night, but do not help them get restorative sleep.

“The risks and side effects of typical prescriptions meds, classified as sedative hypnotics, can be very serious, including death,” Doman said. “In fact, 21 out of 24 health studies showed that people died sooner from taking sleeping pills. There were so many issues with drowsiness and impaired behavior the next morning that the FDA recently mandated labels to reduce the amount of dosage by up to 50 percent in some cases.”

Dr. Kamran Fallahpour, a psychologist and neuroscientist at The Brain Resource Center in New York City, said the Sleep Genius is the only sleep app he knows of that is based on proven neuroscience principles.

“The experts involved in its development have solid backgrounds in developing state-of-the-art applications in the field,” he said in an email interview. “I have tried the app myself as well as with some clients. I enjoy its intuitive simplicity, ease of use and built-in educational material.”

Fallahpour said the ability to fall asleep, stay asleep and to be able to get deep and restful sleep at night is among the most important variables affecting our physiological and mental health.

“The data provided by our clinical and research experience point to insomnia and sleep disturbance as some of the most common symptoms shared among disorders ranging from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury,” he said.

Sleep is regulated by circadian rhythm, our internal physiological clock, he said. But sleep is also influenced by what we do during the day, our diet, lifestyle, psychological and emotional states, and by our environment.

“So we have partial control over some of the variables and a lot more control over other ones such as our lifestyle, diet and aspects of our environment like what we listen to,” he said. “Once you experience insomnia, the fear of not being able to fall asleep becomes an issue itself. That can lead to a cascade of complications like chronic insomnia or other sleep issues.”

Chronic insomnia, said Fallahpour, can lower reaction time and increase risk for anxiety and depression. It can lead to poor immune system function, high blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, and even contribute to weight gain and obesity.

The Sleep Genius is available at the Apple app Store and is expected to be available soon for Android. For more information, go to www.sleepgenius.com.

 

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