Sleep and circadian rhythms
We say ‘sleeping like a baby’ and ‘sleeping beauty’ as if it is a passive process. In reality, it is a challenging time for the human body, and a rich subject of study for sleep physiologists.
Our bodies have a 24-hour internal body clock known as the circadian rhythm, which synchronises our brain to determine sleep cycles. The same gene that controls this clock is also linked to other biological patterns including body temperature, blood pressure and the release of hormones. All of these processes are vital for making us both ready for the day and the night. Modern life means that circadian rhythms can easily be disrupted – as a result of sleep deprivation, lack of exposure to sunlight or even exposure to blue light at night-time. In the UK, it is estimated that two out of five people may be sleep-deprived. This may be because people now typically spend approximately 88% of their time indoors, which causes vitamin D deficiency. This in turn has a direct influence on the clock gene. Use of modern electronic devices at bedtime also impacts on the circadian rhythm.
Sleep physiology plays an important role in understanding the physiology behind sleep deprivation. Research in this area aims to find new treatments to repair disrupted circadian rhythms. Successful developments have the potential to improve the quality of life for many people.
How do I get involved in sleep physiology research?
An undergraduate degree in any life science subject (including physiology, biomedicine, medicine, sports science, neuroscience, genetics etc.) will open the door to a career in physiology research.
Following this, you will have to apply for a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) if you wish to pursue a research career in a university. This involves a substantial research project, typically 3-4 years in length, and training in scientific as well as transferable skills. These are usually fully funded by Research Councils, charities or increasingly industry.
Graduates often complete a Master’s degree before undertaking a PhD. Master’s degrees like a MSc (Master of Science), MRes (Master of Research) and, increasingly, integrated Master’s degrees (e.g. M.Biol or Master of Biology) help to develop a greater understanding of a particular scientific area. This will give graduates a better grounding and make them more competitive for PhD positions.