NASA Scientists Create Biomarker for the Sleep Deprived

Sleep deprivation has been the cause of everything from car crashes, to medical errors, to even the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Donovan Alexander

Every year in the United States alone, 100,000 deaths occur each year in hospitals due to medical errors and sleep deprivation has been shown to make a significant contribution. It is estimated that 27% of Americans have trouble sleeping while roughly 164 million suffer from sleep-related issues each week. 

You may be dealing with sleep-related issues right now and it is becoming far more common across the world than you think. Ruthless work schedules, changes in your personal life, and general health issues can all play a major role in your lack of sleep. However, when not dealt with correctly, sleep deprivation can be dangerous. 

In fact, a lack of sleep cannot only be dangerous to your own personal health but to the people around you. Even the Chernobyl nuclear disaster can be attributed to sleep deprivation.

The eyes never lie

Now, new research conducted at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley has revealed that a range of eye-movement tests provides a reliable biomarker of individual acute sleep loss. 

In the NASA-led research, the researchers discovered that a simple and easily obtainable set of eye movement measurements can provide accurate insights into any potential neural deficits. Even more interesting, these same measurements could potentially be used to identify sleep-related impairments that were caused by alcohol or even brain injury. 

The study

For the study, researchers needed to first establish a baseline as most people’s sleeping habits and daily schedules vary. First subjects experienced 8.5 hours per night of sleep without the use of any alcohol, drugs, or caffeine. After the participants were rested and had no sleep debt or disruptions, the real fun began. 

Subjects were then asked to stay up 28 hours while in the Fatigue Countermeasures Laboratory at NASA Ames, while researchers occasionally tested their visual and eye-movement performance, measuring how it changed throughout the day and night.

Researchers at the lab found that after being deprived of sleep and asked to track stimuli with unpredictable onset, direction, speed and starting location, participants eye movements were dramatically impaired. 

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In short, the study also highlights the potential implications for those who work in jobs that require precise motor function and vigilance as it can be detrimental to the people around you and yourself. 

"There are significant safety ramifications for workers who may be performing tasks that require precise visual coordination of one's actions when sleep deprived or during night shifts. By looking at a wide variety of components of human eye movements, we could not only detect sleepiness but also distinguish it from other factors, such as alcohol use or brain injury, that we have previously shown cause subtly different deficits in eye movements," said Lee Stone, senior author on the study.

The study is published in The Journal of Physiology.

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