NASA Looks to an mHealth Wearable to Help Astronauts Sleep Better

Researchers in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are working with NASA to test an mHealth wearable that might someday help astronauts sleep better.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Wisconsin Institute for Sleep and Consciousness (WISC) and the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine are recruiting people for a program that will test the effectiveness of the Philips SmartSleep Deep Sleep Headband. The project is being coordinated by NASA’s Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH) at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

The connected health device was developed some 15 years ago at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health by Giulio Tononi, MD, PhD, a professor of psychiatry. It was licensed by Philips for consumer use in 2018.

The headband detects when a user is in deep sleep, then enhances that level of sleep by emitting a tone that synchs with one’s brain waves.

“It was like having an amplifier strapped to your head,” Brady Riedner, PhD, a WISC assistant research director, said in a press release issued by the school. He called it “a metronome for the brain.”

NASA hopes that such a device could help astronauts sleep more soundly while in space – thus, conversely, enabling them to be more alert and focused when awake.

“At TRISH, we’re always looking for emerging technologies that can reduce risks to human health and performance – especially during deep space missions,” TRISH Director Dorit Donoviel, PhD, said in a June press release announcing the two-year research project. “We are interested in optimizing performance without medication and identifying solutions that can improve the efficiency and restorative quality of sleep. With Philips SmartSleep technology, we’re aiming to use a consumer-facing device for spaceflight that can evaluate the correlation between sleep and performance, and how that connects back to astronaut behavioral health.”

The program is split into two separate projects:

Optimizing Auditory Stimulation to improve cognitive performance (OASIS): For two months, 24 volunteers will use the mHealth headband at home, performing a comprehensive NASA-validated cognitive test battery daily. The study will explore how auditory stimulation positively affects specific cognitive domains, as well as if an individual’s sleep patterns can predict cognitive performance throughout the following day. The optimal pattern and frequency of tone application will also be assessed.

Improving Efficiency and Restorative Quality of Sleep: 12 volunteers will wear the headband for a seven-day lab trial replicating the challenging sleep conditions experienced during spaceflight. TRISH will look at whether the technology benefits daytime cognitive performance during a period of chronic sleep restriction and reduces performance deficits induced by sleep inertia after an abrupt or emergent awakening.

Originally published in mHealth Intelligence by Eric Wicklund on July 29, 2019