McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Students track sleep patterns with space age watches

By Matt Terry
Published: December 22, 2010
Astronaut wearing an Actiwatch
Astronauts wear the Actiwatch in space in order to better understand the effects of changes in light and activity on their bodies in space.

Fourth year students in Sheila Whelan's Adaptations to Microgravity course, in McMaster’s Bachelor of Health Sciences Program, have found that they share more than just an interest in space with certain astronauts.

As part of their class, which explores the effects of, among other things, weightlessness on the body, the students have been wearing Actiwatches. The small device, which straps to the wrist like a watch, measures the amount of ambient light the students are exposed to as well as the amount of activity they engage in.

Originally developed to study the effects of space travel on astronauts' sleep cycles, the Actiwatches have provided students with unique insights into their own slumber habits — and the results show that students, like astronauts, tend to be somewhat sleep deprived.

"Some nights I only slept three hours because I had been up all night working on an essay or studying," said Beverley Preater, who spent a week wearing the watch earlier in the year. "I'm a student, so I guess it wasn't that surprising."

The student’s are participating in a repeat of a sleep study by Dr. Charles Czeisler from Boston.

According to Whelan, the exercise helps students understand the theoretical concepts they learn in class by applying them in everyday life.

"Wearing the Actiwatches helps the students better relate to the research because it's their own bodies they're studying," she said. "The data collected from the watches really show just how important sleep is, whether you're an astronaut or a student. It impacts everything from memory retention to cognitive function — that's really the lesson here."

After hearing from guest speakers such as Canadian astronaut and professor of surgery Dave Williams, the students learned that astronauts can also have trouble sleeping in space — though their sleeplessness tends to be a result of changes in exposure to light, uncomfortable sleeping positions and even difficulty looking away from the beauty that is Earth from afar rather than late-night cramming for exams.

Williams himself has experienced the effects of space travel on his body. In a 2009 interview with Canada AM, he described being "gravitationally-challenged" upon his return from space flights, and he continues to be monitored by NASA doctors seeking to understand the long-term effects of space on the human body.

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional Level Double-A conformance, W3C WAI Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0