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Quantifying long-term sleep patterns and their consequences

This is an update from the OpenBCI Discovery Program. Click here for details on how to apply.

1. What are you making?

Sufficient good quality sleep is one of the most important components of a healthy life: it affects memory, concentration and even interacts with the gut microbiome. However, we still don’t know exactly how long term sleep patterns in an individual interact with these factors.

That is, until now! Three years ago a team of researchers from The Netherlands, Austria and Australia initiated one of the largest N=1 studies in the world, with one of the researchers as the subject. 

That subject is me, Rob ter Horst, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Molecular Medicine (CeMM) in Vienna, Austria. In my “daily” research I investigate the influence of gene expression and epigenetics on the human immune system. However, for the last few years, as part of a (self-funded) independent project, I have spent ~11 hours a week on different types of measurements. Measurements include weekly brain MRIs (n>100), weekly sleep-polysomnography (PSG) (n~100) and microbiome measurements (n>250). The goal is to connect all these measurements, and see how sleep, the brain and the gut interact.

In order to quantify sleep, for the last 3 years I have collaborated with researchers at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour in Nijmegen, the Netherlands to perform weekly standard sleep polysomnography [EEG, EOG, EMG and ECG]. With the same group I measured weekly brain MRIs in the morning following a sleep PSG, measuring both brain structure and activity.

Check out this YouTube video for an overview of the daily and weekly measurements.

I recently moved from the Netherlands to Austria for my postdoctoral research, and in Vienna I established a collaboration with Vienna University to continue my weekly brain MRI measurements. However, since my move to Vienna I no longer have access to proper sleep-PSG, which is a vital part of the project.

2. How are OpenBCI tools being applied?

Luckily, one of my main collaborators is a big supporter of Open Science, and has developed an open-source sleep-PSG system based on OpenBCI components called COsleep. COsleep was developed by Frederik D. Weber, an experienced sleep researcher at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour. It was already successfully used in other projects to record high-quality, research-grade sleep PSG with an 8 and 16 channel setup [link].

Using this system, which requires an OpenBCI Cyton Biosensing Board, we created a sleep-PSG device and continue the weekly PSG measurements. For this purpose we also created a custom 3D printed housing: . Many thanks to Robert Pazdzior for the design and printing!

OpenBCI Cyton Biosensing Board (8-channels) with custom 3D-printed housing.
Housing and Cyton board with cover attached.

3. Why is this important?

An increasing number of people is chronically sleep deprived, both because they are not getting enough sleep and because the sleep they are getting is not of sufficient quality. Recent evidence suggests that chronic sleep deprivation is associated with an increased likelihood of cognitive decline, Alzheimers, many cardiovascular and metabolic diseases and a weakened immune system. These studies are generally performed under acute sleep deprivation conditions or based on questionnaires assessing past and current sleep behavior. However, to better assess how normal day-to-day variations in sleep affect the brain and the body requires a detailed longitudinal study. 

The study presented here is the first study of its kind with such a large variety of data over such a long period of time relating to the brain, body, environment and sleep. Given the magnitude of this dataset we hope to increase our understanding of the consequences of the natural variation in sleep over time. Specifically, we hope to connect sleep to brain activity and the microbiome to answer several questions like:

·   How do sleep patterns during the night affect brain structure and activity the morning after?

·   How does the gut microbiome influence brain structure and activity as measured by MRI?

·   How do stress and happiness affect brain structure and activity?

·   Does sleep quality affect the gut microbiome?

We want to find out how sleep, the brain, and the gut microbiome are connected.

We also believe it is important that the general population can reliably track their sleep, since this can be a first step in improving your sleep. In addition to answering the scientific questions mentioned above, the open-source sleep-PSG system will also be used to test the sleep tracking accuracy of different consumer wearables. The results will be shared on the YouTube channel “The Quantified Scientist”.

Example of a video that tests the sleep tracking accuracy of a consumer wearable.

4. Who is involved in this project?

The project is a collaboration between several researchers from different research groups.

Rob ter Horst is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Molecular Medicine (CeMM) in Vienna, Austria. He specialized in bioinformatics and data analysis.
Frederik D. Weber is lead developer of comprehensive open-source sleep analysis and recording software (SpiSOP, SleepTrip, Cosleep). In the lab of Martin Dresler in Nijmegen as well as in Eus van Someren in Amsterdam he develops sleep analysis methodology further to apply to big and diverse sleep data.
Dr. Martin Dresler is an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Donders Institute / Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. The research of his group centers on the cognitive neuroscience of sleep, including cognitive processes occurring during sleep and the role of sleep for memory processes, neuroplasticity and general cognitive functioning. You can find more information about Martin’s research at .

Dr. Isabella Wagner is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Cognition, Emotion, and Methods in Psychology at the University of Vienna in Vienna, Austria. Her research focuses on the gut-brain axis.

Dr. Alejandro Arias Vasquez is Associate Professor in Biological Neuropsychiatry at Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen, The Netherlands. He focuses on understanding the genetic mechanisms underlying the way the brain functions in general and dysfunctions in disease. His research activities are embedded within three domains: (i) Genetic Epidemiology, (ii) Effects of the Gut Microbiota in neurodevelopment, and (iii) High order analysis methods of complex traits.

Dr. Elise M. McGlashan is a Research Fellow in Psychology at the Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. She studies the variability in the response of the human circadian system to light exposure.

5. Want to learn more about this project?

Initial results of the project will be shared on the YouTube Channel “The Quantified Scientist”. On this channel we also discuss the sleep tracking accuracy of consumer wearables and smartwatches.

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