March 4, 2019

‘Very exciting time’ for sleep research as studies zero in on performance, health


Beth Malow, MD, MS

The science of sleep, and how to get people to do it better, is getting attention from policymakers to researchers who are trying to understand how sleep impacts performance and health.

Questions abound about how sleep can be used in personalized treatment, how it links to Alzheimer’s, and how to use techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy to help people sleep better, said Beth Malow, MD, MS, Burry Professor of Cognitive Childhood Development, professor of Neurology and Pediatrics and director, Vanderbilt Sleep Disorders Division at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

“Sleep is involved in so many aspects of health and quality of life these days. It’s a very exciting time because it’s spanning health care, research and public policy. For example, policy makers are becoming interested in areas linked to sleep such as school start times because that can play a major role in teen health and education — even driving safety,” said Malow, who was named Tennessee’s Best Sleep Doctor by Reader’s Digest.

Successfully changing someone’s sleep habits, whether adults or kids, encompasses implementation science — a new field which focuses on bringing interventions with proven effectiveness into routine practice, with the aim of improving population health. Setting limits around screen usage and establishing calming nighttime routines are key to getting higher quality sleep, although helping people implement those approaches is challenging.

“It’s all teachable but you have to figure out how to do it effectively,” said Malow.

Malow is also working on understanding how improving sleep can be incorporated into treatment plans for people with autism and whether there are markers to predict who will benefit from which treatments. For example, Malow and others are looking at who will respond to a personalized approach of supplemental melatonin with behavioral techniques or who will need stronger medications.

“It would be great if we could predict that and actually personalize the approach to the individual,” she said.

Awareness of ‘sleep hygiene’ is getting a boost as more people use devices and apps to collect data about how long they sleep and its quality. Yet, that technology might raise more questions about what’s being tracked, how accurate the devices are, and how data are being shared than it answers, she said.

For a sleep expert, it’s bittersweet.

“That’s a whole other discussion, but what I like about the tech craze is that people are paying attention and thinking about how they can get more sleep and how they are sleeping,” said Malow.