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Aug 26, 2019

Ready for liftoff – exploring the benefits of SmartSleep Deep Sleep Headband in space

Estimated reading time: 6-8 minutes

International travel, different time zones, children waking you up at night – I am one of many in our generation struggling to get enough sleep. And if I don’t get my 7 – 8 hours of sleep, I feel it immediately: I get grumpy, have problems to concentrate, and am not the inspiring leader I would like to be. And I often think of professionals that get even less regular sleep: Doctors, nurses, pilots … and even worse: astronauts! How are they coping? 


It’s well-documented that sleep is an essential part of improving personal health and, when neglected for extended periods of time, can put people at greater risk for a variety of health issues, from heart attacks to strokes. Research shows that slow-wave sleep provides the most benefits for restoring brain function – the phase of sleep that allows for memory consolidation and the managing and optimizing of all sensory data gathered during the day. During this phase, the brain can decompress from the activity of the day, resulting in increased energy and alertness during times of wakefulness the following day. 


Lack of sleep is a universal health problem that connected technologies can help solve. Philips developed the SmartSleep Deep Sleep Headband to help people who do not get the recommended amount of sleep per night. This wearable boosts a user’s slow-wave activity in real-time to enhance restorative periods of slow-wave sleep. Sensors pinpoint when someone enters deep sleep, triggering soft audio tones at a specific timing, volume, and frequency, clinically-proven to boost slow waves. It’s fascinating to continue to grow our understanding of the connection between tech, sleep, and cognitive performance. 

Houston, we have a problem

People struggle getting a good night’s sleep here on Earth – imagine how difficult this must be for astronauts in space, where there is no night or day. In addition to disturbances to natural circadian rhythms, astronauts are in challenging sleeping environments and operate on ever-changing schedules. This is particularly concerning given astronauts need peak cognitive and operational performance to effectively do their jobs. 


For this reason, the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), a virtual institute powered by the NASA Human Research Program, has taken a keen interest in improving behavioral health and cognition by optimizing sleep quality for astronauts.  TRISH is funding two unprecedented sleep studies using the Philips SmartSleep Deep Sleep Headband to understand the benefits of enhanced slow wave sleep for astronauts working in extremely challenging environments. This two-year initiative will use the headband to evaluate the effect of auditory stimulation during sleep on cognitive performance under conditions mirroring those in space. By making this effort to understand sleep in such extreme conditions, we’ll also gain a stronger understanding of the impacts of this technology for consumers on Earth.


I spoke with Dr. Emmanuel Urquieta, scientist at the Translational Research Institute for Space Health, the funding agency for these studies.  


Dr. Carla Kriwet: What are the basic kinds of sleep challenges astronauts experience in space? 


Dr. Emmanuel Urquieta: Along with motion sickness and pain, sleeping problems round out the top three complaints among astronauts on active missions. We know astronauts’ sleep problems are caused by a multitude of conditions – including uncomfortable ambient temperatures, higher noise levels, restrictive sleeping bags, stress factors, and the absence of familiar cues like light cycles. Astronauts’ sleep is also often interrupted by the operational needs, heavy workloads and other sudden schedule changes of their work, leading to sleeplessness and fatigue. Sleep quality is particularly crucial for them, but astronauts rarely get the quality sleep they need. 


CK: It is concerning thinking astronauts face that many problems just trying to sleep, especially given the high-stress situations they face quite frequently in space. How is TRISH hoping these studies will address these problems? 


EU: TRISH is addressing this in two parts. The first study is focused on determining the type of auditory stimulation that can enhance specific cognitive domains, like memory or executive function. Our investigators are also exploring whether an individual’s previous night’s sleep can predict cognitive performance throughout the following day.  They’re doing this by having 24 subjects use the SmartSleep Deep Sleep Headband at home for two months, and then perform comprehensive cognitive tests throughout the day. 


CK: That’s fascinating. I’m sure the findings could play a large part in determining the proper roles and responsibilities for daily tasks and missions while in space and in reducing human error. And the second?


EU: That’s what we’re hoping! The second study will evaluate two things. First: whether slow-wave sleep enhancement through the SmartSleep Deep Sleep Headband can benefit daytime cognitive performance during periods of chronic sleep restriction, even in extreme conditions reflecting those experienced in space. And then, whether this enhancement can minimize the damaging effects of an abrupt wake up, which astronauts experience when facing an on-ship emergency. This will be particularly crucial to determining how effective this technology can be for astronauts, as we’re simulating sleep conditions experienced during space flight as well.


CK: It seems as though it’s hard enough falling asleep in space, but can be equally difficult waking up ready to go. Is there a particular reason you think the SmartSleep Deep Sleep Headband can help solve these issues? 


EU: As a space medicine innovation Institute, we’re continuously seeking out new approaches to address astronaut health issues, with the aim of delivering these space health solutions to NASA. We know there is a need improve the restorative properties of sleep for space crew members so they can operate at peak performance levels in spite of sleep challenges. For that reason, we’re very interested in exploring the benefits of SmartSleep and the technology that powers this solution. The potential to optimize human performance with wearables instead of medication is a fascinating and hugely important possibility for astronauts working in deep space conditions, such as the mission to Mars.

Across the universe

Universally, sleep deprivation is recognized as a population health issue by clinical communities, affecting the health and livelihood of millions of people. By working with TRISH, we’re excited to bring sleep solutions to space to learn how we can better the lives of those experiencing intense sleeping conditions. And by testing SmartSleep technology in these extreme conditions, we’ll also gain from a better understanding of the benefits of SmartSleep for improving sleep for people here on Earth. With new technology, we’re hopeful that we can improve the lives and well-being of people through better sleep. 

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Carla Kriwet

Dr. Carla Kriwet

Chief Business Leader Connected Care

Dr. Carla Kriwet is Executive Vice President and Chief Business Leader Connected Care, and a member of the Royal Philips Executive Committee. 

Click here to read more on Dr. Carla Kriwet

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Dr. Emmanuel Urquieta wears a brain wave monitoring device during a HERA 11 mission in 2016.

Dr. Emmanuel Urquieta wears a brain wave monitoring device during a HERA 11 mission in 2016.

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