Lab studies student sleep patterns

By Isaac Wolf

A new lab for Core Biology that requires participants to keep a sensor on their bodies at all times is leaving some students in the College wondering if Big Brother is keeping tabs on them.

The lab, which is being performed by the two sections taught by Thomas Christianson, has students wear a wristwatch-like device that measures movement and light exposure for two weeks straight. At the end of the period, the information is passed to a computer for analysis. It caps a full quarter of studying circadian rhythms, and adds to the experiments conducted on fruit flies about the 24-hour natural cycle.

“The big thing that we’ve been working on is daily rhythms in organisms,”said Sam Isaacson, a third-year in the College who recently finished the lab. “This lab is the same thing we’ve been doing on flies — except [it’s] on ourselves.”

Isaacon said that many students in his section complained at first about having to wear the devices, but all eventually got used to it. He thinks the lab was helpful in relating to the material about circadian rhythms, which include patterns of sleep, light exposure, and movement.

José Quintans, associate dean of the biological sciences division, explained that the purpose of the lab is to give students a direct link to the material. “It tells you whether your life-cycle is in synchrony with the natural circadian cycle or not, whether you’re in synchrony with the outside world or whether you sleep all during the day,” Quintans said.

Quintans said the findings of the first group, which completed testing on November 4, reveal common irregularities in sleep patterns. Of the 25 tested during the period, two students had two sleepless nights, one student had one sleepless night, and 14 students took frequent naps. “Most of the students learn that they’re sleep deprived, which is not a good thing for learning,” he said.

The devices, black boxes about the size of a regular wristwatch and strapped on with black wristbands, have inside of them an accelerometer to measure small movements as well as a light-sensitive panel. Called “Actiwatches,” the devices are often mistaken for watches.

“People think you’re wearing a watch and ask you for the time,” said Joshua Vizer, a second-year in the College who completed the lab last year for extra credit. “I had to keep telling them, ‘I don’t know.’ It really got on my nerves.”

Katie Sharff, the teaching assistant who developed the lab, said that the device is often used in assessing sleep disorders because it allows observations to be made about sleep efficiency, the time between when someone gets in and out of bed, and the actual amount of time they are still. It also indicates “fragments” or movements in one’s sleeping pattern.

“It gives them an opportunity to see if they have any rhythm, which most undergraduates don’t,” she said. “The thing that is really interesting is that most students got the average of 7-8 hours of sleep a night, but they didn’t do it in any regular pattern. Most students sleep four hours one night and then 11 the next.”

But while the experiment has so far gotten positive feedback, many participants voice conspiracy-theory concerns, claiming that having a school-owned device on them at all times amounts to an invasion of privacy.

Vizer said he did not enjoy the lab because he felt it was intrusive. “They know your sleep patterns and you had to tell them if you drank — I didn’t like that invasion,” Vizer said.

Before beginning the lab, students had to sign consent forms that their data could be used anonymously in the future if a protocol was passed by the school’s Internal Review Board. But both Sharff and Quintans emphasize that the sole purpose of the experiments is to enhance the students’ understanding of circadian rhythms. “We’re not looking in on them,” Sharff said. “There’s no system turning on anyone.”

Nonetheless, Marcelo Bertani, a second-year in the College currently wearing the Actiwatch, said many of his classmates are cognizant of the sense of intrusion.

“Everybody talks about it,” he said. “The watch is so creepy. There’s a feeling that these things are being used to track you down. Everyone knows they’re just going to find funny patterns — probably also that we U of C’ers don’t get enough sunlight either.”