Scientists to Unlock Sleep Secrets

Tired of feeling tired after a bad night's sleep? A team of top Australian scientists are coming to your rescue with a cutting-edge research centre investigating the relationship between sleep and the brain.

Professor Ron Grunstein of the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research will head NeuroSleep, a new centre tasked with better understanding how disrupted sleep leads to impaired brain function and how brain conditions impact on sleep. The team of investigators from some of Australia's leading research organisations are charged with making discoveries that will help the 1.5 million Australians with a sleep disorder.

"There are literally hundreds of thousands of adults in our country who have trouble with their sleep with disorders like obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia that makes sleep difficult and leaves them feeling tired and fuzzy-brained in the morning," says Prof Grunstein. “We also know that changes in sleep are common in a range of neurological and psychiatric diseases and may even herald the onset of conditions like dementia and Parkinson’s.”

"Consequently there's a pressing need to delve deeper into the relationship between poor sleep and impaired brain function with the goal of preventing these problems and improving the health of the community. With NeuroSleep we intend to do just that."

NeuroSleep, the Centre for Translational Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology opens this month with $2.5 million in funding over five years from the National Health and Medical Research Council Centre of Research Excellence (CRE) scheme.

Prof Grunstein, Head, Sleep and Circadian Research Group at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, will lead the team of world-class investigators in the project which draws on research from neurology, psychiatry, neuropsychology, respiratory neurobiology, chronobiology, imaging, and biophysics to solve the mysteries of sleep.

This clinical research aims to improve alertness in people with sleep apnea, a disorder in which breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep. The scientists will also look at the effect of sleep loss and a misaligned body clock on the brain, and investigate new strategies for managing insomnia and degenerative disorders in later life that affect sleep.

"We aim is to improve cognition, workplace safety and overall health in people with sleep problems, from shift workers through to mental health patients in the general community," Prof Grunstein says.

A core goal is to untangle the complex bi-directional relationship between sleep and the brain, figuring out how a problem with one fuels issues with the other, locking patients into a vicious cycle of bad sleep and problems with brain function, he says.

The collaborative team is made up of top researchers from the Woolcock, Monash University, Neuroscience Research Australia, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Concord Repatriation General Hospital, and University of Sydney’s Brain & Mind Research Institute (BMRI) and Charles Perkins Centre.

It will build on the success of two former Centres of Research Excellence led by Prof Grunstein: Centre for Integrated Research and Understanding of Sleep (CIRUS, 2009 - 2013) and the CCRE in Respiratory and Sleep Medicine (2005-2009).

The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has high hopes for the project, declaring in its funding decision that the team was impressive and the studies exciting, innovative and "likely to lead to internationally significant findings with important implications for clinical practice."

Sleep disorders in Australia

  • Sleep disorders are common, affecting more the 1.5 million adult Australians
  • 5 - 10% of adults have obstructive sleep apnea and 10% have problematic insomnia
  • 1 in 10 shift workers have shift work disorder, when their work schedule is out of sync with their body's internal sleep‐wake clock
  • 2% of adults have restless leg syndrome, and about 0.5% have REM sleep behaviour disorder, in which the sufferer acts out their dreams
  • In Australia, the economic burden of disrupted sleep is significant, with a total health care cost of $818 million attributed to sleep disorders in 2010 alone
  • Indirect financial costs including lost productivity, absenteeism, accidents and injuries, were estimated to be $4.3 billion