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Neuroscience of Sleep Course Investigates the Impact of Sleep

Irene Kan placing an FNIRs cap on a student

Less than 10 percent of college students get eight hours of sleep per night. Healthy sleep schedules are a huge concern for college students. So, Irene Kan, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, created the course, “Neuroscience of Sleep,” to delve into the many facets of sleep and how it impacts our behaviors. 

In the course, students debunk prior misconceptions about sleep and learn about the impact of sleep on cognition, physical and mental health. Kan created “Neuroscience of Sleep,” a Mendel Science Experience course, alongside post-doctoral fellow Meghan Caulfield, PhD, with student interests in mind. 

“Sleep is something that a lot of students think they know a lot about. But they don't necessarily know as much about it as they think they do,” says Caulfield.

Part of Kan’s thinking in creating the course was that in order to change people's behavior, it's good to start with something that everybody cares about.

“On some level everyone cares about sleep and sleep deprivation is certainly very common, especially in college students as they try to balance their academic and social commitments,” Kan added.

With relevant real-life applications, the material allows students to relate the course content to their sleep schedules and environments. 

“This class has been so applicable to my current life because we talk so much about the neuroscience behind sleep and why it's an important part of how we function, but also how it affects college students and how it affects your study habits,” said Annie Direnzo, CLAS ‘22. “Sleep is a topic everybody should learn about. It's useful information, very important and concerns the wellbeing of people, which I'm very passionate about.” 

Running concurrent to the lecture is a lab component, which allows students to apply what they are learning. For instance, in one project students look at cortisol levels and use that as an index of a stress response and how that relates to sleep function. 

“We’re getting a lot of hands-on experience. We have labs where we'll use fNIRS and EEG machines to look at the brain,” said Bob Holmes VSB ’22. 

Student wearing FNIRS cap

While giving students access to a broad range of lab experience in the lab, students also use functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which measures blood flow changes of your brain as you are engaging in a certain task. 

Projects in the course are designed to use the interdisciplinary skills of each student and apply the course material in real-world scenarios. A “Sleep and Environment” project asks students to design a sleep-friendly campus. For example, students might consider aspects of dorms in creating an environment that may help or hinder healthy sleep. A “Sleep Infographic” assignment gives students an opportunity to share what they’ve learned in an accessible format. Students choose an aspect of their lives that sleep influences to educate others on the benefits of sleep and the consequences of sleep loss. 

The students have also been able to change their own behaviors and sleep habits from what they’ve learned throughout the course. 

“The class material is very applied,” said Holmes. “Now I'm really working on not using my phone before I go to bed and making an effort not to have my phone within an arm’s reach when I go to sleep."