Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Sleepless in upstate New York

Any regular reader of Skeptophilia who pays attention to the timestamp on my posts knows that I'm a bit of an insomniac.

I have suffered from chronic insomnia since I was a teenager.  It started with bizarre, vivid dreams, which often would wake me up (sometimes because I'd thrashed around so much I'd fallen out of bed).  Once awakened in the wee hours, it takes me long enough to fall back to sleep that I frequently just give up and get up.  Most of the conventional sleep aids haven't helped; the mild ones (like valerian and melatonin) are ineffective, and the stronger ones worry me because of their capacity to become addictive.  So mostly, I've just put up with it, living and working on a chronic sleep deficit, and trying to catch time to take catnaps whenever I can.

So, naturally, I was pretty intrigued when I ran across an article called "Life Without Sleep," by Jessa Gamble.  Her piece begins with a bit of a history of sleep deprivation, and includes the efforts by the military to come up with a way to combat fatigue in soldiers (most of which, by the way, were either ineffective in the long term or had dreadful side effects).  But my attention really perked up when she started talking about two potential therapies for chronic insomnia -- transcranial direct-current stimulation (TCDS) and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) -- which work not by getting you to sleep, but by reducing the amount of sleep you need.

TCDS and TMS both work on the same principle; using an external energy source to trigger neuronal firing in the brain.  Both of these treatment modalities are, pretty much, what they sound like.  TCDS involves placing electrodes on the scalp, and introducing a electric current into the brain; TMS places the head in a powerful magnetic field.  Both of them have been used, with results that I'd file in the "interesting" column, to treat depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia.  Both have no known long-term side effects, although TMS apparently has a low risk of causing seizure or fainting.  (For me, the main risk of TCDS is that I would spend the entire time worrying that I was participating in a reenactment of the climax of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.)

According to Gamble, both of these treatments show great promise in helping with insomnia.  About TCDS, she says:
After a half-hour session of the real treatment, subjects are energised, focused and keenly awake. They learn visual search skills at double the speed, and their subsequent sleep — as long as it does not fall directly after the stimulation session — is more consolidated, with briefer waking periods and longer deep-sleep sessions.
TMS apparently has shown similar results:
Using a slightly different technique — transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which directly causes neurons to fire — neuroscientists at Duke University have been able to induce slow-wave oscillations, the once-per-second ripples of brain activity that we see in deep sleep. Targeting a central region at the top of the scalp, slow-frequency pulses reach the neural area where slow-wave sleep is generated, after which it propagates to the rest of the brain...  TMS devices might be able to launch us straight into deep sleep at the flip of a switch. Full control of our sleep cycles could maximise time spent in slow-wave sleep and REM, ensuring full physical and mental benefits while cutting sleep time in half. Your four hours of sleep could feel like someone else’s eight. Imagine being able to read an extra book every week — the time adds up quickly.
What I'm imagining, at the moment, is not feeling chronically exhausted, and not having to worry about falling asleep at the wheel during my ten-minute drive home from work (a fear I deal with on more days than I'd like to admit).  I imagine not constantly wondering when I'm going to have time to take a nap so I can actually be wide awake after eight o'clock at night.

It's a happy picture.

Of course, the worrywart side of me wonders what the long-term effects of this might be.  We still understand very little about why animals need sleep, and less still about why they dream.  Messing about with a physiological system we don't fully comprehend seems rather foolhardy.  On the other hand, the tests that have been done so far support the contention that TCDS and TMS are relatively safe, are non-invasive, and show great promise in dealing with chronic insomnia, a condition which according to the National Sleep Foundation plagues 10-15% of adults.

I'd volunteer to give it a try, even given the iffy status of the risks.

But right now, I think I'd better wrap this up, because the coffee's done brewing, and given how little sleep I got last night,  I could sure use a cup or two.  Or five.


  1. I always thought that you either scheduled your posts or there was some sort of time zone thing going on with your settings.

    As someone who suffers as well I am very intrigued by this. I went over 18 months without more than 2 hours consecutive sleep and after trying myriad "treatments" and drugs I settled on a nightly dose of Amitriptyline to help settle my sleep. It was non-addictive but did require me to take pills every night, which I wasn't a fan of. About two months ago I decided it was time to see what life off drugs was like. Let's just say it's been met with mixed reviews.

    Thanks for sharing your story (or part of it), Gordon. Good luck - and sleep well.

  2. Even if it turns out there are side effects to these treatments, you also have to consider the known health effects of sleep deprivation.

  3. Hey. I just found your blog, pretty stoked about it! Just stopped by to say that I'm 99.9% sure it's actually tDCS. Dunno if that warrants a correction or not. But I am planning on becoming a DIY tDCS-er sometime... soon, and there's a subreddit dedicated to this particular brand of (buahaha!) self-experimentation:

    Thanks and keep up the awesome work!

    1. Thanks for the correction, and (especially) the link to the subreddit. I'll definitely check it out, esp. since I have to go to the day job today on about three hours' sleep...