Adriana Galván Professor of Psychology at UCLA and holds Jeffrey Wenzel's Chair in Behavioral Neuroscience. She specializes in young people's…
Adriana Galván Professor of Psychology at UCLA and holds Jeffrey Wenzel’s Chair in Behavioral Neuroscience. She specializes in young people’s brain development. This part appeared in the Conversation.
Healthy sleep leads to healthy minds. Neuroscientists have received that message. But parents, doctors and teachers have struggled to identify what to do to improve sleep. Some have asked to delay school start times or limit screen time before bed to achieve academic, health, and even financial gains.
Still, recent estimates show that about half of young people in the United States are sleep deprived. These numbers are alarming because sleep is particularly important during the teens, a time of significant brain changes that affect learning, self-control and emotional systems. And sleep deprivation is even greater in economically disadvantaged youths compared to more prosperous counterparts.
Research from my development science laboratory shows a solution to the sleep deprivation problem that is deceptively simple: give teens a good pillow. To get comfortable bedding does not involve technology, expensive surgery or much time, it can be particularly beneficial to improve sleep among younger youth.
Studies in my laboratory have shown that obviously small differences in sleep quality and durability make a difference in how the brain processes information.
Sleep works as a glue that helps the brain to encode recently learned information for long-term knowledge. It also improves focus on school, as sleep helps to suppress hyperactive behavior, strong emotional responses and irregularity. This means that students who are usually dismissed from the classroom for disturbing behavior are more likely to stay in the class unless they are sleep deprived. More time in class leads to more learning.
My colleagues and I initially assumed that the number of hours that slept was most important for the development of healthy brain over time. But when we tested this idea with a study, the results were surprised. Instead, young people whose sleep was not inconsistent in school week, varying as much as 2.5 hours from one night to the next, showed less development of white substance connections in their brains one year later than those who slept more consistent hours per night.
White material connections help to process information efficiently and quickly by connecting different brain regions, similar to how a highway connects two cities. Young people are an important time to cover all the pathways of the brain, and this survey indicates that sleep may be crucial to this design.
Better sleep comes with better bedding
So what are the main sleep ingredients that contribute to healthy brain development? My lab designed a study to investigate.
We provided 55 1
4- to 18-year-old high school students across Los Angeles from different socio-economic backgrounds with feature graphs, wristwatch-like monitors that track sleep quality. Higher sleep quality is defined by fewer zombies per night. There are times of the night when sleep rhythms are disturbed and the person is briefly awake or moves into a lighter night’s sleep, whether they are aware of it or not. In our study, youths had average five floors per night that lasted between less than one minute and over an hour.
After two weeks, they came into the lab to get their brains scanned. We were interested in measuring the connections between brain pathways involved in self-control, emotions and reward processes – the same ones that are important for reducing impulsivity and keeping focus in the class. It was not surprising that young people with better sleep quality had better “brain connection”. The relationships between key brain regions were stronger.
But the more important and surprising discovery was what we found when we digged deeper into identifying the reasons why some young people got better sleep than others. Was there less technology in the bedroom? Darker room? Less noise? Higher socioeconomic status? Not in our study.
Young people who reported greater satisfaction with bedding and pillows were those with greater sleep quality and higher sleep quality associated with the connection of the larger brain, an effect that spans socioeconomic lines. Conversely, in our study of low brain connection and poor sleep quality, young people showed greater impulsivity than those with high connectivity and sleep quality, which illustrates real effects on reality.
So there is a perfect pillow? We found that one size does not fit all. For some people calm a flat pancake pillow them for a healthy sleep. For others, only a super puffy cloud will be made. And although our results were strongest for kudkomfort, bedding was more important as well.
Sleep interventions to close performance gap
In all measurable domains, young people who grew up in poverty experience poor results. Compared to more prosperous peers, they show poorer academic and cognitive performance, psychosocial well-being and physical health. These gaps have been the focus of intensive debate and research, but they are broad and persistent.
The availability and quality of basic needs, including food, health, parent heat and protection, help explain some of the different outcomes between high and low-income young people. But researchers have severely underestimated sleep – an equally important basic need that could be an untapped solution to the performance gap.
Reducing performance gap is the goal of many government-funded programs. One way to achieve that is to create accessible and realistic goals for actions that improve daily functioning. Sleep can be such a goal. It is relatively easy to quantify and track, which is affected by daily habits that can change, such as parental monitoring and sleep routines, and it is directly associated with learning, social and health problems.
At a time of border starvation about the effects of sleep and brain development technology, little attention is paid to the basic components of good sleep in adolescents. Ensuring that they have comfortable bedding can help improve the sleep of all teens, especially among poorer families. And it’s much easier to convince parents and teens to invest in pillows than bubble over phone privileges.