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By Roger Highfield on

Into the grey zone: Secrets of sleep revealed

One of the most pressing questions of today’s 24/7, sleep-deprived, high-pressure society is: if I am so stressed that I am not getting enough slumber, is it going to make me dumber?

At the Manchester Science Festival (Thursday 26 October 2017, 19.30–20.45) we are going to find out as I dive deep into the ‘grey zone’—the twilight world of consciousness between awareness, coma and death—with Dr Adrian Owen, a leading neuroscientist.

A decade ago, Adrian made headlines worldwide by using brain scanners to communicate with people thought to be in a vegetative state. He tells the remarkable stories of his patients in his book ‘Into the Grey Zone’ and he believes that sleep provides new insights, being another part of the grey zone of consciousness.

In June of this year he launched what he hoped would be the largest ever study of sleep, where tens of thousands of volunteers recorded their sleeping habits, and underwent tests of brain function.  His sleep study rests partly on his conviction that it is hard data, gleaned with a plethora of methods, that will crack the mystery of consciousness more than navel gazing and philosophical contemplation.

Adrian Owen scans a participant as part of his mass participatory study into sleep
Adrian Owen scans a participant as part of his mass participatory study into sleep

In the first day or so, he recruited more than 30,000 people from around the planet for online tests ( and journalists around the world were eager to talk to him. Such was the media interest in his giant study, led from his lab in Canada, that when I caught up with the 51-year-old Brit to discuss our festival event he was complaining bitterly about his own lack of sleep.

“Just look at the Twitter link to a picture of me on CNN last night—l look terrible, a sleep-deprived neuroscientist talking about sleep deprivation!”

Since then, almost 100,000 have taken part.

Rock and roll meets research

Born in Gravesend, Adrian studied for his doctorate in the Institute of Psychiatry, London, carved out his scientific reputation in Cambridge, and a few years ago moved to London, Ontario, to take up the prestigious Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at The Brain and Mind Institute, Western University, Canada.

Now the author of more than 250 scientific papers—and wannabe rock star guitarist and lead vocalist—Adrian has switched his attention more to sleep. Three of the people working with him also play in Adrian’s band, Untidy Naked Dilemma. Adrian sings and plays guitar in a style that he likens to ‘Celtic-infused pop rock with a splash of Bruce Springsteen’ Not being able to afford roadies, they often stay late after gigs to pack up their gear. “This sleep study binds it all together,” says Adrian, “the band, our consciousness research—everything.”

Early indications from an as-yet unpublished complementary brain scan study by his team at Western University gives new insights into why, paradoxically, when we are most sleep deprived we have a diminished ability to reason and can even struggle to realise that we really are performing badly. Adrian hopes his findings will provide a wakeup call so we can not only be healthier but think more clearly too.

Why we give up great chunks of time to sleep is still a matter of debate, he explains. There are many explanations, ranging from keeping us out of harm’s way to saving energy, processing information, regulating emotions along with consolidating memory.

Sleep is as vital for life as water, and some even call it the third pillar of health. Rats deprived of sleep die within a month. Too little affects your immune system and appetite, being linked to heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Sleep deprivation can impair driving abilities at least as significantly as alcohol. Increasingly, a lack of sleep is implicated in mental problems including bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia, even Alzheimer’s.

Mass participation study

Sleep is not all it seems. “We have studied people when asleep and it is incredible what the brain can do,” says Adrian, explaining how they looked at what happened when they played the soundtrack of the movie Taken as a brain scanner tracked the participants’ neural activity.  “It is extraordinary,” he says. “We think we are cut off from the world but the brain remains very responsive to things that are going on around you. Even when you go into the grey zone, your brain doesn’t. There is a lot more going on in the brain when we are asleep than anybody realises.”

Adrian was also prompted to study sleep deprivation for very personal reasons. With his wife and fellow neuroscientist Jessica A. Grahn, he had his first child, a baby boy named Jackson, in October 2013. The resulting sleepless nights caused havoc.

“I had very severe sleep deprivation for Jackson’s first two years,” he says. “I was trying to write a book, trying to run a lab with 34 people in it, flying around the world trying to be a big shot neuroscientist and I was really struggling to juggle all that stuff in my head. It did occur to me that sleep deprivation was not necessarily affecting my health but was affecting my ability to function.”

“I was expected to stand up at international conferences to answer difficult questions about the brain and I was finding myself incapable of doing that. I did start to wonder if I should look at these things.”

Despite this, he figured out a way to investigate sleep by building on an earlier online mass experiment conducted in 2010, when (as editor of New Scientist) I helped him and his colleague Adam Hampshire organise a mass participation study of intelligence, when 110,000 people took part using online tests.

Our results were published in the journal Neuron in 2012 and suggested that intelligence is more than one number, IQ, resting on three factors: short-term memory; reasoning; and a verbal component.

Measuring the impact of sleeplessness

In the new study, based on the same tests (which can be found at, participants track their sleep and performance. The hope is that his team should be able to chart the impact of lack of sleep, a problem that Adrian says saps billions of dollars of productivity from the world economy. “So many people are now working more erratic hours and sleeping less, while the pace of our lives seems to be accelerating.” And early results suggest that “people who claim to get less than four hours sleep are impaired on every single test compared to people who claim to get eight hours.”

In a recent study on 27 sleeping people, he has scanned electrical activity in the brain and revealed a link to what are called spindles, bursts of activity. These oscillations arise in the thalamus, deep in the brain, which has nerve fibres projecting in all directions to the cerebral cortex which plays a central role in memory, attention, perception, awareness, thought, language, and consciousness.

Spindles are “really interesting,” he says. Earlier studies have shown them to be linked with IQ. “In fact, spindles are the only biological marker of intelligence, reasoning and decision-making. These weird little squiggles in the sleeping brain predict how well you do when you are wide awake on a decision-making task.”

The new work by his lab connects these ‘pops’ of electrical activity during light sleep with one of the factors shown in the 2012 study: reasoning abilities—problem-solving skills—such as the ability to employ logic, or identify patterns. His team found that the spindles in parts of the thalamus that radiated to the brainstem, the cerebellum, and the right putamen.

“Until now, the relationship between spindles and reasoning abilities was unknown,” he says. “Here, for the first time we have identified the brain circuits—those linked with higher cognitive functions that were time-locked to spindles that are correlated to cognitive abilities.”

That means you can predict from spindles the performance on intelligence tests. The fewer you have, the worse you will do. “It now raises new questions about why sleep deprivation affects your brain,” he says. “Perhaps it interferes with these spindles, affecting our physiology and damaging our reasoning ability.”

The big questions about sleep

Margaret Thatcher, who reportedly only had four hours sleep a night
Margaret Thatcher reportedly only had four hours sleep a night

The giant sleep study will enable Adrian’s team to see if some people are able to cope better with sleep deprivation, as was famously the case with Margaret Thatcher, who thrived on four hours each night while Prime Minister. “Or perhaps you don’t need reasoning skills to run a country,” he jokes. “Huge numbers of people in our study give us an amazing opportunity to answer big questions about sleep.”

“It would be great to understand that variability, and how some people seem to be able to function on very little sleep,” he adds. “Already, some of the people who logged on during testing revealed they are getting by on just three or four hours a night and tell us they are an engineer or something—it is incredible.”

Machine learning will be used to comb through Adrian’s data to sift for new insights into slumber to tackle a much bigger question: can we use sleep to optimize the way our brains work?  Getting enough is one way, of course, but ‘can you do the equivalent of going to the gym to boost your spindles?’

“We don’t yet know,” says Adrian when I spoke to him recently “but we’re using this massive online study to launch a whole series of new investigations, using some of the most sophisticated neuroscientific equipment available today. If sleep is the answer to better brain health, then we’re going to find out.”

As for the latest insights into the secrets of sleep, come along to hear me in conversation with Adrian on the evening of 26 October at the Museum of Science and Industry.


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