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Nasa tests Philips wearable to improve sleep for astronauts

Steve Rogerson
August 6, 2019

Nasa is testing a medical wearable from Philips to see if it can help improve sleep patterns for astronauts in deep space.
The Dutch company’s SmartSleep deep-sleep headband will be used in research funded by the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (Trish), a virtual institute empowered by the Nasa human research programme, for two studies evaluating the relationship between sleep and cognitive performance for behavioural health.
The two-year initiative will use the headband to determine if sleep can be improved during deep space exploration by using various auditory stimulation protocols, thereby increasing cognitive function.
“We’re honoured to have the SmartSleep deep sleep headband selected for these studies that will be important not only for space exploration, but also for the millions of people who have difficulty obtaining adequate sleep,” said John Frank, business leader for sleep and respiratory care at Philips. “Deeper understanding of the connection between sleep and cognitive performance builds on the decades of clinically-guided research that drive our sleep solutions, and will contribute to future Philips innovations making better sleep and its benefits accessible to everyone.”
Research has demonstrated that the beneficial effects of sleep on restoring brain function occur, at least in part, during slow wave sleep, resulting in increased energy and alertness during times of wakefulness. The benefits of enhanced slow wave sleep are especially pertinent to astronauts, who must maintain peak cognitive and operational performance while working in extremely difficult sleeping environments.
Trish, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, has begun the following studies:

  • Optimising auditory stimulation to improve cognitive performance: For two months, 24 subjects will use the headband at home, performing a Nasa-validated cognitive test battery daily. The study will explore how auditory stimulation positively affects specific cognitive domains, as well as if an individual’s sleep patterns can predict cognitive performance throughout the following day. The optimal pattern and frequency of tone application will also be assessed.
  • Improving efficiency and restorative quality of sleep: A seven-day lab trial replicating the challenging sleep conditions experienced during spaceflight will study 12 subjects wearing the headband. Trish will look at whether the technology benefits daytime cognitive performance during a period of chronic sleep restriction and reduces performance deficits induced by sleep inertia after an abrupt or emergent awakening.
“At Trish, we’re always looking for emerging technologies that can reduce risks to human health and performance, especially during deep space missions,” said Dorit Donoviel, Trish director. “We are interested in optimising performance without medication and identifying solutions that can improve the efficiency and restorative quality of sleep. With Philips SmartSleep technology, we’re aiming to use a consumer-facing device for spaceflight that can evaluate the correlation between sleep and performance, and how that connects back to astronaut behavioural health.”
The headband, made available for purchase in the USA in autumn 2018, is clinically proven to enhance the quality of deep sleep through customised tones that provide a boost to an individual’s natural slow wave activity and to improve cognitive function in a number of domains during wakefulness.
Philips will support Trish’s studies by providing this technology, in addition to offering the technical expertise necessary to programme the devices to deliver multiple forms of stimulation, and to extract the data assessing slow-wave sleep.
The first prototype of the device was conceived by Giulio Tononi, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine & Public Health, about 15 years ago.
“It was like having an amplifier strapped to your head,” said Brady Riedner, assistant research director at the university, of an early prototype.
He and other members of the lab worked with Philips to build the algorithms that teach the device to detect when the brain is in its deepest levels of sleep. The headband then enhances the sleep by emitting an auditory tone that is in sync with those deep waves, like a metronome for the brain.
Tononi’s research was the catalyst for the conceptualisation and development of the device as a consumer product by Philips.
For the Trish-funded trial, the Wisconsin institute hopes to enrol 25 healthy volunteers, aged 25 to 45, who will wear the headbands when they sleep at home. Because astronauts might only sleep in short bursts, and need to be alert when awakened, Riedner explained that Nasa was interested in ways of enhancing the quality of sleep to improve astronauts’ cognition when they were awake.