Originally created 04/23/98

Zzzzz: Astronauts sleeping for science



CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- When it comes to space shuttle shut-eye, Columbia's astronauts have no privacy: Every breath they take, every snore they make is being recorded by sleep experts.

It's the most in-depth sleep study conducted in 17 years of space shuttle flight, and features the latest in sleep technology. The goal is to help insomniacs in orbit as well as on Earth.

"We're very excited about the use of this new technology on this mission," said Dr. Charles Czeisler, a researcher at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

Each night, Columbia's four medical men take a pill -- they don't know whether it's melatonin or a placebo -- and wear a wrist monitor to gauge their amount of sleep. On four nights, Wednesday night included, they suit up.

It's a nightmarish uniform: their heads are wrapped with a helmetlike blue netting dotted with white electrodes, with wires running every which way. The electrodes measure brain waves, which are recorded by a small device dangling at their side.

The $20,000 device -- about the size of a tape recorder -- is a new miniaturized version of the bulky equipment typically found in hospital sleep labs.

The astronauts also are wired up with a microphone to record their snoring, and sensors to measure eye movement, breathing and the surrounding light. And they swallow a radio transmitter to measure body temperature.

It's the first time scientists have recorded sleep and breathing at the same time in space, Czeisler said.

Once the astronauts wake up, they beam down the recorded data. As of Wednesday, Czeisler and his team had received more than 6,000 pages of recorded brain waves. He said the crew seems to be sleeping well since arriving in orbit last Friday. Indeed, astronaut-physician Dave Williams said it's been taking him 15 to 30 minutes to fall asleep but he feels "quite well rested."

Astronauts tend to sleep poorly in orbit, and it's no wonder. Instead of a sunrise and sunset every 24 hours, there's one every 1 1/2 hours.

"You'll feel wide awake and you'll look out the window and it's pitch black out," Williams explained. "It's kind of like being on call when I was in the emergency room."

In addition, astronauts often have to shift their bedtime by several hours over the course of a mission. What's more, they sleep with their arms floating up -- an extremely uncomfortable position.

Orbiting astronauts are three to eight times more likely to take a sleeping pill than the general population, Czeisler said. If melatonin supplements prove beneficial, that could eliminate the need for sleeping pills, which often cause grogginess.

The last thing NASA wants is a groggy or sleep-deprived astronaut in space. It could mean the difference between success and failure or -- more importantly -- life and death.