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Circadian Rhythms

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Autor:   •  September 8, 2010  •  2,487 Words (10 Pages)  •  316 Views

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Tomas Izquierdo has not slept since 1945. Due to an attack of encephalitis, an inner brain inflammation, his ability to fall asleep was lost at the age of 13. Although he rests with his eyes closed, his brain patterns are those of someone who is fully awake and aware. He has memory problems and very sensitive eyes, but is otherwise completely normal. To relax, he usually uses transcendental meditation from about three or four AM until the morning (Coleman 94).

Tomas Izquierdo is what one might call someone without circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are the daily sleep patterns of humans. Circadian rhythms tell people when they are most alert, when they feel tired, and when they should wake up. These circadian rhythms, while difficult to research, are important to many industries, as well as a multitude of sleep disorder patients. For several years, scientists and doctors have been seeking a greater understanding of these patterns through constant, difficult, and fast paced research. The applications of such knowledge would be quite beneficial in shift based industries as well as some special circumstances. As of yet, doctors have been able to determine a few important correlations between internal time cues and sleep, activities or events that give cues to the brain about what time it is or should be. However, the research is very difficult.

Researching sleep is difficult for a variety of reasons. The first reason for difficulty is the nature of experimentation. To truly isolate the sleep patterns, all time-giving cues, or zietgebers, have to be eliminated. Light, electromagnetic waves, the schedules of researchers, and even the growth of a facial hair on outsiders may lead the subject to guess the time of day. The body can detect even the faintest cues of time, so it is incredibly important that the subject be completely shut off from time giving cues. If the subject of the research knows the time of day, he or she may adjust accordingly, skewing results and making it all but impossible to collect the data needed.

Another reason for the difficulty of sleep research is the pace of discovery. The field moves too fast for its own good. As a result, no comprehensive beginner's text is available in the field of circadian rhythms. By the time a book would go to print, too much important experimental evidence would have been released for it to be considered up to date. So, as of yet, most research in circadian rhythms remains in the form of scientific newsletters and magazine articles. While this is a good way for those who are up to date in the field to stay current, it is all but impossible for an outsider to understand. Due to this lack of an introductory text, doctors have a more difficult time learning what has already been proven about sleep (Simon Frasier).

A third difficulty in researching circadian rhythms is the lack of test subjects. While being paid for sleeping may sound enticing, the reality of research is much different. People are cut off from contact with their families and loved ones for months and put in what amounts to a jail cell. The room is easily compared to the small boxes used by psychologist B.F. Skinner to test theories of conditioning on mice; not exactly the nicest of conditions to live in. Subjects are allowed to read old magazines and newspapers, but no current information is available. If a war were to break out, the subject wouldn't know about it until after the study was completed. Live feed-type entertainment such as radio or television is not allowed. In addition to a lack of freedom and information, the subjects are tested quite often. For example, take the case of one such study at the Laboratory of Human Chronophysiology at Montefiore Hospital. In the study, subjects had small blood samples taken every twenty minutes, alertness tests about every hour, brainwave monitoring of any sleep, and continuous rectal temperature readings (Coleman 7). Subjects of any such research have to be crazy enough to willingly go through this kind of testing but sane enough to call normal. The experience was described by Preston Keogh, a subject, in his journal.

"Sometimes I felt like a prisoner, trading my youth for money. Although I didn't feel crazy, I thought others might think I was... They took blood samples every fifteen minutes. I had a catheter in my arm, and a butt probe and all these things were attached to a movable pole. The first few days there was a definite presence but after the first week it became a part of you. It was like having a tail."

Finding people who are willing to live in these conditions is a major obstacle to research.

It could be asked, "If it's so hard to do, why bother with all this research? What's so important about sleep patterns?" The importance of sleep pattern research is threefold. Not only will research in the field of circadian rhythms help us maximize the alert hours of the general population, but it will also help to better maximize the schedules of shiftworkers. Shiftworkers are laborers, usually factory based, that run on a continuous 24 hour schedule, never stopping. The idea of shiftwork is that expensive or crucial machinery can be kept operating 24 hours a day. For example, a telephone operator or a nurse would work on a 24 hour shift system. Sleep pattern research with also help set the schedules of people in situations where the time-giving cues of light are not available, such as in spacecraft or submarines. To be able to get shiftworkers or submarine crews to work more efficiently might mean that less people and equipment may be needed, possibly saving hundred of thousands of dollars. The first step in this research is defining a normal sleep pattern.

Research has defined a "normal" sleep pattern for adults. Studies have been done all over the world in the field to describe what is considered normal among adults. In one such study sponsored by Stanford University, three rooms of a hospital were sectioned off for testing. The center room was used as a control room, and the other two rooms were used as bedrooms for test subjects. The test subjects were instructed to stay in the rooms, which had no windows or clocks, and sleep on a regimented schedule for twenty days. After the twenty days passed, they were told to sleep whenever they wanted to. The scientists asked that they take only one sleep period a day. Volunteers had no contact with the outside world other than the staff. The staff, of course, was instructed to remove any trace of a sense of time from their habits. They had to remove all wristwatches, use time-neutral phrases like "hello" instead of "good morning," and shave just before handling test subjects. Their work schedules were determined randomly


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