We spend a third of our lives doing it, but we don’t understand much about it. What is it? Sleep!

Patient gets sleep

Medical researchers know quite a bit about sleep, but much remains to be understood. Interesting theories abound, as do attempts to explain relationships between sleep disruption and mental health and the complex connection between sleep and circadian rhythms, according to Gerald Hurowitz, MD, Chief Medical Officer at M3 Information and an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University.

Speaking at the recent Health Technology Forum Innovation Conference at Stanford University, Hurowitz urged medical researchers to consider tracking the sleep-wake cycle itself with the same intensity they are tracking daytime movements such as steps and sitting. He claims knowing a patient’s sleep patterns, coupled with their mood states, could be an untapped key to understanding overall health.

Sleep Theories

Researchers theorize short-term memory storage is consumed during waking hours and during the sleep cycle some of these memories are off-loaded and converted into long-term storage in the brain. This frees up the short-term memory for another full day’s use. The science of how memory consolidation happens isn’t totally clear yet. Evidence points to coordinated, genetic in the brain’s cortex and hippocampus.

Hurowitz hypothesizes, “There’s also reason to think that besides those sorts of memory circuits changes, other  neurotransmitter receptor sites also get recycled during that [sleep] time – including receptors for serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and so on.”

The mental health connection plays out in several ways. Sleep cycles can be disrupted by untreated insomnia, affecting cognitive function on subsequent days. There can also be a correlation between mood, nightmares experienced during sleep, and mental health pathologies such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, or bipolar disorder.

Clinical Sleep Tools

That Web site What’s My M3 allows patients to self-screen for all four of the most common mental health disorders through a single tool. The service is free, and so far he has gathered more than 2 million anonymized questionnaires on the site (there is also a billable version of the M3 Checklist available to physicians able to be ordered through LabCorp).

Sleep research will continue and over time the links between sleep, mood, mental health, and physical health will become clearer. Sweet dreams to us all!

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Scott Mace

Scott Mace writes about healthcare, technology and related topics such as computer security, digital identity, and workflow automation. His journalism career spans more than 30 years, writing for such media as InfoWorld, Personal Computing, Byte, Boardwatch, IT Conversations, NurseWeek, HealthLeaders, and Identiverse. In 2015, he was a recipient of a Jessie H. Neal Award, an annual national journalism competition in business reporting, for best technical content in the January/February 2014 HealthLeaders cover story, "The ROI of EHR." For six years, he also served on the international board of directors for CalConnect, the Calendaring and Scheduling Consortium.

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