Almost everyone I know, whether a psychologist or not (and I do have one or two friends who aren't!) is fascinated by sleep. Be it dreaming, sleep-walking (or other forms of parasomnia) or just comparing how much they think they need each night, it's a frequent source of amusement and debate. How strange, then, to think that despite decades of research, we still know relatively little about the function of sleep, or even what 'normal' sleep looks like. Compare what you know about sleep to what you know about diet (arguably something of comparable importance to our health) for example. Many people now analyze their diets in great detail, but do we have any idea how we might do have same for our sleep?
One recent attempt to help rectify this, published in the journal PLOS One by Kevin Peters and his team, examined if age plays a role in what normal sleep looks like and the phases that make it up (termed 'sleep architecture), looking for similarities and differences between the sleep patterns of young and older adults.
Peters et al looked at two particular aspects of sleep in groups of 24 young and old adults (mean ages 20.75 and 71.17 respectively), REMs and sleep spindles (bursts of brain activity that occur in phase two of sleep, usually immediately after an outbreak of muscle twitching). Both of these have been separately linked to cognitive function in previous studies, but none of these studies have looked at the relationship between the two across different age groups. To try to make the sleep as 'natural' as possible, Peters et al excluded people with signs of depression or sleep disorders (both of which can lead to abnormal sleep patterns) and all participants had an 'acclimatization night' sleeping in their normal beds with the measurement electrodes attached but not recording.
What conclusions can we draw then, from this contribution to the study of such a familiar yet mystifying topic? Given that sleep is so crucial to all of us, I find it amazing to think that it can vary so much from person to person. Finding areas of sleep that may be more important than others (for example, a very early possible link here between sleep spindles and ageing) may be exciting, but given all this variability, generalizing any findings from future experiments to all of us will surely prove a huge challenge. The baffling and intriguing study of sleep seems set to continue to give us sleepless nights for a good while yet.