Symposium highlights Emory's leading research in sleep science

By Quinn Iriye | Emory Report | Nov. 8, 2019

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Epidemiology professor Dayna Johnson discussed her study on determinants of poor sleep among African Americans as part of the Nov. 1 Sleep Symposium.

Surrounded by artificial light and enticed by screens, Americans are chronically sleep-deprived — and that lack of rest can lead to multiple chronic diseases and mental health disorders. At Emory University, researchers are breaking new ground in forging collaborations across disciplines to advance the study of sleep.

On Nov. 1, the Emory University Sleep Consortium held its inaugural Sleep Symposium, “Building Sleep Research Across Emory,” at the Emory Conference Center. 

The symposium kicked off the consortium’s effort to pursue sleep science at Emory through a multidisciplinary approach. Attendees included researchers from Emory’s School of Medicine, Rollins School of Public Health, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Oxford College and Georgia Institute of Technology.

Faculty and trainees from diverse fields presented research projects ranging from how sleep changes in the post-partum period to whether monarch butterflies sleep. In addition, several nationally-recognized sleep researchers from outside Emory gave presentations. 

“Despite the critical importance of sleep, there are very few academic institutions in the United States that have established sleep programs that are cross-disciplinary and integrate research, teaching and community-outreach activities,” says symposium co-organizer Julie Gazmararian, professor of epidemiology at Rollins. “Emory’s existing sleep research expertise, education and clinical training provide a strong foundation for building a leading program in sleep.”

Sleep research is evolving from mainly being conducted in a hospital sleep laboratory toward being pursued in homes and schools. The duration and quality of sleep are dependent on both environmental and psychosocial factors, which can be assessed at home, says Dayna Johnson, assistant professor of epidemiology at Rollins.

To demonstrate how technology enables sleep studies in homes, Johnson is studying insufficient sleep and environmental and psychosocial stressors in African Americans. The Sleep Home Environmental Exposures and Blood Pressure Study includes ambulatory blood pressure monitoring.

“This is an important study that can potentially provide relevant insights regarding determinants of poor sleep among African Americans,” Johnson says. “If we can target these risk factors, we may be able to reduce the burden of hypertension among African Americans.”

Emory neurologist Lynn Marie Trotti reported on her just-initiated clinical study of the antibiotic clarithromycin in patients with narcolepsy/hypersomnia disorders. Poster presentations included a project examining how sleep affects the microbiome in medical staff, and research led by Gazmararian on sleep among high school students in Barrow County, Georgia. She and her colleagues are examining sleep’s relationship with racial/ethnic disparities in academic outcomes, as well as opportunities for developing a sleep-education campaign targeting high schools.

A presentation from Benjamin Reiss chair of Emory’s English department, addressed sleep behavior from a humanities perspective. Reiss, author of “Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World,” discussed how social and cultural variables, such as housing and expectations for co-sleeping, change the way individuals view sleep.

The keynote address by Harvard University scientist Charles Czeisler chronicled circadian sleep disorders, such as shift-work disorder, early/delayed sleep-phase disorder, jet-lag disorder and non-24-hour sleep-wake disorders. Circadian misalignment is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, cancer, heart disease and mental health disorders, Czeisler says.

To further promote sleep science and research following the symposium, the EUSleep Consortium will develop working groups around topic areas based on interests and needs, existing strengths and potential for funding. 

This symposium and the efforts of EUSleep are supported by the Emory University Office of the Provost, Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Emory School of Medicine and Woodruff Health Sciences Center through the SynergyII Nexus Award program.