June 9, 2006

Sleep Core adds to research arsenal

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Beth Malow, M.D.

Sleep Core adds to research arsenal

Sleep research technologist Pagan Howard prepares Jack VerMulm for a sleep study.

Sleep research technologist Pagan Howard prepares Jack VerMulm for a sleep study.

It didn't take long for Vanderbilt's fledgling Sleep Research Core to fully awaken.

Not yet a year old, the core — housed in Vanderbilt's General Clinical Research Center — is actively engaged in supporting numerous clinical research protocols, with several more expected to be added in the coming months once the appropriate approvals are secured.

By consolidating Vanderbilt's multiple sleep research assets, the core is designed to be an effective, efficient 'one-stop shop' of sorts for investigators who want to add sleep-related components to their studies.

“Clinical sleep research is becoming more recognized as an important investigative tool,” said Beth Malow, M.D., M.S., associate professor of Neurology and director of the Sleep Research Core as well as director of the Vanderbilt Sleep Disorders Center.

“It really spans many disciplines, including Neurology, Pulmonary Medicine, Psychiatry and Pediatrics. This core was established to develop collaborations between researchers with very specific clinical interests, allowing them to add a sleep component to their research.”

Current studies under way include: examining the effects of treating sleep apnea — the involuntary, temporary stoppage of breathing during sleep — in people with epilepsy; studying how sleep patterns in children with autism impact on daytime behavior; and assessing how circadian/sleep rhythms impact protein content in human blood.

The core has nine approved, active, ongoing studies, and has recently gained support from the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development.

Two trained sleep technologists have been added in the past year, one of whom specializes in working with children.

While the core features two sleep rooms equipped with the latest digital monitoring technology, its reach isn't limited to the confines of the GCRC. Studies can be done off-site, in patients' homes or, in the case of another current study, in Vanderbilt's Medical Intensive Care Unit (MICU).

There, Paula Watson, M.D., is looking at how quality of sleep may affect outcomes in the MICU. She's studying how the different types of sedation and medication used might impact sleep quality, and for her, the core's resources have proven invaluable.

“It definitely helps to have access to the equipment and to the sleep technologists, who are top of the line and extremely knowledgeable and helpful,” said Watson, assistant professor of Allergy, Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine.

Watson recently returned from a national meeting where she spoke to researchers at other institutions who are considering conducting sleep-related studies in their ICUs, and discussed the types of issues they're facing in getting started.

“Because of the core and the sleep technologists, we're already ahead of that part of the curve,” Watson said.

The core is also helping investigators negotiate a different kind of curve, one that's financial in nature. Kimberly Hutchison, M.D., is using functional brain imaging to study brain changes and long-term effects of chronic sleep deprivation in patients with apnea.

She has a foundation grant to help pay for her research, but “the core and the GCRC greatly supplement the funding. If not for their resources, there wouldn't be enough money to conduct this study,” said Hutchison, assistant professor of Neurology.

“Some people don't have the funding secured for a larger study. The core and the resources it makes available enable investigators to get enough pilot data to compete for grants. It really helps push research forward,” Hutchison said.

And that is the ultimate goal of the core, to expand the sleep-related resources and knowledge base available to Vanderbilt investigators, said David Robertson, M.D., director of the GCRC.

“No area of clinical research is more productive and compelling at the moment than sleep and circadian rhythm studies. In a short time, Dr. Malow has created an exceptionally productive and broad-based Sleep Research Center,” Robertson said.

Malow is pleased with the core's progress in its first year, and is enthusiastic about sharing its resources with more investigators in the future.

“We're particularly interested in attracting researchers who, while sleep might not be their primary focus, recognize the importance of sleep in their research.”