Please welcome Dr. Anthony DiMarco, MD, Medical Director and Professor of Physiology at Case Western Reserve University
Brain waves printed out from an EEG machine during a sleep study.

A Look Back at the History of Sleep Research

A Look Back at the History of Sleep Research

As medical studies have advanced throughout recent centuries, so has sleep research. We have come a long way in understanding this key restorative activity. The history of this field is full of interesting developments and it continues to be a source of fervent research to this day.

Learn more about the early days of sleep research, the main milestones and modern developments in the field.

Early Sleep Research

Investigating the Importance of Sleep

For most of early history, many cultures focused on the interpretation of dreams. Yet, they were largely uninterested in the role of sleep as a factor in human health. Only in the 18th century did scientists actually begin to research sleep patterns. In 1729, Jean Jacques d’Ortuous de Marian conducted research on plants, which sparked interest in human sleep. He noticed that the plants continued to grow even in constant darkness and understood that circadian rhythms are independent of the environment.

In 1845, a British doctor named John Davy studied the connection between body temperatures and sleep patterns. Then, a French researcher, Henri Pieron, published a book titled The Physiological Problem of Sleep. This marked the first time in history when rest was studied as a health issue. In the following years, sleep research blossomed as a rich field for scientists. Constantin von Economo, a Romanian neurologist, went on to identify the hypothalamus as the area of the brain responsible for regulating sleep cycles. In 1924, a German psychiatrist named Hans Berger became the first to record electroencephalogram (EEG) wave patterns produced by the brain and study the difference between sleep and wakefulness.

The Development of Sleep Studies in America

In the 1920s, Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman opened the first sleep lab at the University of Chicago. Here, he studied the regulation of sleep and the human circadian rhythm. He and his students also analyzed the characteristics of sleep and the effects of chronic sleep deprivation. This important foundational work in the field earned Kleitman a title as the “Father of American sleep research.”

Together with one of his students, Dr. Eugene Aserinsky, Kleitman discovered rapid eye movement (REM). They determined that it was a regular phase of sleep that repeated four to five times in a normal night. REM was defined as a period of lighter sleep when patients most often had vivid dreams.

Dr. William Dement, another student of Kleitman’s, documented sleep cycles for the first time in 1955. Later, he went on to do more in-depth research on the relationship between REM sleep and dreams. Because of his dedication to the field, Dement became one of the leading experts on sleep disorders and dreams. Others have called him the “father of sleep medicine.”

Major Milestones in Modern Sleep Study

Following the work Kleitman and his students, there was rapid advancement within the field of sleep research. Here are some of the highlights:

  • 1956 – Professor Charles Sidney Burwell identified the condition now known as obstructive sleep apnea.
  • 1958 – Dr. Aaron Lerner discovered melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep-wake cycles.
  • 1968 – Allan Rechtschaffen and Anthony Kales published the first guideline for determining sleep stages. This guide is still used today to define the four non-REM stages of sleep according to brain wave patterns.
  • 1970 – Dr. William Dement founded the first sleep lab, at Stanford University, specifically focused on studying sleep disorders.
  • 1973 – Professor Thomas Borkovec conducted Cognitive Behavioral Therapy studies for Insomnia.
  • 1975 – The Association of Sleep Disorders Centers, which later became the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), was founded.
  • 1975 – Dr. Dement and Dr. Mary Carskadon created the multiple sleep latency test which helps diagnose a variety of sleep disorders.
  • 1977 – Dr. Peter Hauri published a guideline for sleep hygiene.
  • 1979 – Dr. Colin Sullivan developed the continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) system for treating sleep apnea.
  • 1982 – Dr. Carlyle Smith researched rats and found the REM sleep is imperative to learning and recollection.

Recent Developments in the Field of Sleep Research

Sleep research, in recent years, has grown to encompass many other fields – from cardiovascular research, neurology, otolaryngology and more. The National Center for Sleep Disorders Research was created in 1993 to oversee the vast array of studies related to the diagnosis and treatment of sleep problems carried out every year. This governing body works to raise awareness about best practices and share information about new developments with professionals in the field of sleep research.

The treatment options and equipment designed to help with sleep disorders continues to improve. As research advances our knowledge of the function and dysfunction or sleep increases. In the past 15 years, there has been a clear shift towards in-home testing for people struggling with sleep problems.

This shift has made sleep testing much easier, more affordable, and accessible to the average person seeking better quality rest. In-home testing devices are now able to provide clinicians with data that is key to diagnosing the disorder. Additionally, mobile apps help improve treatment outcomes. Patients can easily track their progress and get sleep coaching support throughout the treatment program.

Learn More About Sleep Testing

If you are having trouble getting the rest you need or lack the energy to get through the day, talk to your doctor about sleep analysis. A certified sleep clinic can help identify the problem with overnight testing in-home and at the lab. Contact Sleep Health Solutions at (330) 923-0228 to schedule a consultation.

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