By: Helena

The Sleepio team joined forces with Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, last week, in the latest in a series of events to promote the importance of sleep at Google’s London HQ. Our visit last October revealed on the links between sleep and work performance. This time the focus was the neuroscience of sleep and mental health.

Russell kicked off by establishing why we should care about our sleep health. Russell discussed some of the lesser known short term consequences of sleep loss, including impulsivity and so-called ‘micro-sleeps’ which – though short – can be deadly if you’re behind the wheel. Sleep disruption influences a surprising array of bodily systems and processes, including immune defences, appetite, blood pressure and the metabolic processes which influence our risk of diabetes

As a circadian neuroscientist, Russell has spent many years investigating how light influences our sleep-wake rhythm. His team was behind the discovery of a photoreceptor in the eye which uses light to govern our master body clock. Ophthalmologists initially found it hard to believe that light sensors had any functions beyond visual sight, but some ingenious animal studies revealed the critical role of these cells. Without these photoreceptors, mice completely lost their regular sleep and wake cycles – as if they were living in a state of perpetual jetlag.

Images of Photosensitive Retinal Ganglion Cells, which govern our sleep-wake rhythms in response to light

Images of Photosensitive Retinal Ganglion Cells, which govern our sleep-wake rhythms in response to light

We know that sleep problems are highly comorbid with several mental health problems such as depression or schizophrenia. For decades, particularly in schizophrenia, sleep disruption has been viewed as a by-product of the medication used to manage the illness. Could it be that the mechanisms in the brain that generate normal sleep and mental health overlap?

Russell made a strong case for this by presenting the results of a recent study in which patients with schizophrenia were treated with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). Post-treatment, not only did their sleep improve, but incidences of delusional behaviour were halved.

Our recent trial found that addressing sleep problems with Sleepio, a digital form of CBT-I, also improves measures of emotional wellbeing (such as ability to cope with stress) and productivity at work.

Can it be said that sleep protects against poor mental health? Increasingly compelling evidence points that way, but we’ll keep you posted as the evidence develops.