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SERL researchers at World Sleep Congress

Infants spend three-quarters of their time sleeping, children about half of their time, and adults about one-third. Adolescence is a period of development during which sleep patterns often change quite radically. So, why do we spend so much time sleeping? Is it merely for the body and brain to take a rest? Recent findings confirm that, far from taking a rest, parts of the brain are more active during sleep than during wakefulness, consolidating memories of events that happened during the day. Indeed, sleep plays a crucial role both in brain development and in learning, memory and daytime functioning.

The role of sleep in the developing brains is vital. Yet the impact of sleep on cognitive and behavioural development is still in its infancy. Several studies have now reported that optimal quality and quantity of sleep leads to more effective learning, in terms of knowledge acquisition and memory consolidation. In contrast, poor sleep quality during development, particularly sleep fragmentation appears to be a predictor of lower academic performance, reduced attentional capacities, poor executive function and behaviours which challenge.

Lifespan Learning and Sleep Laboratory, Lilas Lab team members, recently presented their work at World Sleep Congress, a joint congress of World Association of Sleep Medicine (WASM) and World Sleep Federation, in Prague. Dr Dimitriou chaired a symposium for healthcare professionals, sleep health professionals and pediatricians in which Dr Knight, Dr Spano and Dr Hayton presented evidence from the lab’s latest work on sleep related learning, behaviour and emotion in typically developing groups as well as those with a diagnosis of ADHD, Down syndrome, Autism and Williams syndrome across different cultures (UK, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Greece).

Dr Dimitriou noted also the importance of personal accounts of those who suffer from sleep difficulties through participatory research in order to understand their experiences, perspectives and priorities regarding sleep and to inform further our sleep research and intervention agenda.

Dr Dagmara Dimitriou, Reader in Developmental Science and Director of Lilas Lab at the IOE, explains: “Individuals with a diagnosis should be in the centre as agents to identify their problems and main areas of concern and to set the agenda for future sleep interventions. That is an essential goal in relation to both quality improvement and cost containment of therapy services. We are working with, rather than on, people who experience poor sleep aiming to characterise the relationship between sleep, cognition, physical and mental health. While working with infants and young children may enhance our understanding behind sleep mechanisms, is also important to work with aging people and promote interventions which may target quality of life.’’

Dr Dimitriou presented her current funded study, in collaboration with Professor Richard Mills and Georgia Pavlopoulou, on personal accounts on sleep in autism noting that such important understandings are the first step towards exploring which specific factors may be addressed in future interventions for individuals with neurodevelopmental conditions across the lifespan.

A number of posters were also presented at World Sleep Congress this year from Lilas’ lab stimulated interesting discussions amongst healthcare and educational professionals attending the congress. Below there is a summary of the additional key points raised in the conference.

Miss Wasmiah Bin Eid, PhD student at Lilas, and Beatrice Chua, master student supervised by Dr Dimitriou , suggested that even though sleep problems could have underlying physiological cause, changes in environmental factors can alleviate these difficulties, such as later school start times and different bedtimes for children. They also explained in their presentations that the effects of the sleep disturbances in autism extend beyond the individual. Mothers of children with developmental conditions often experience heightened levels of stress and sleep problems because they are kept awake by their adolescents’ daughters or sons with a diagnosis of autism. Data from maternal questionnaires were strongly correlated with their teens’ sleep data.

Georgia Pavlopoulou, Lilas Research fellow and PhD student, presented the environmental settings in the life of siblings and shed light on the ways sleep disturbances of children with a diagnosis of autism and additional learning disabilities results in poor sleep for their sisters and the impact that this has in their education. She used a community based participatory framework, a rare methodological approach in the current field of research, enabling sisters to collect, analyse and present in their local community their data. This new finding requires further studies using multi-dimensional measures including objective sleep measures with siblings and personal accounts. These results help us to raise awareness amongst parents, teachers and clinical therapists around the possible implications in the life of siblings growing up with a brother or sister with a diagnosis of autism.

Rabya Mughal, Phd student, aimed to characterise the relationship between sleep, learning and language on children with a diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome disorders (FASD). She found out that children with a diagnosis Compared to typically developing children, those with FASD had shorter night sleep duration, higher numbers of night wakings, night wakefulness and settling duration. They were more likely to sleep with a parent, and fall asleep only when a parent is present. In comparison to control parents, parents of FASD children were more likely to describe their child's sleep as problematic, and had higher involvement with their children during bedtime routines. Regression analysis revealed that a proportion of the variance in both language development and behavioural scores in children with FASD could be attributed to night sleep duration.

Aisha Jawed, PhD student, provided strong evidence that sleep problems in young women with eating disorders are associated with poorer cognitive functioning, namely attentional problems. Short sleep duration, of around 4 hours per night, found in the current sample may lead to increased emotional problems and other health problems. Hence, women with eating disorders should thus be screened for sleep problems since these appear to be severe and are sufficient to negatively influence cognitive functioning. Targeting sleep restoration in this population may ameliorate cognitive responses and associated behavioral outcomes.

(Zoe’s photo here)

Zoe Toms, a master student supervised by Dr Dimitriou and Pavlopoulou, explored the relationship between intense social media use, anxiety symptoms and poorer sleep in female college students confirming that social media use reduced overall sleep duration and increased night time wakings along with exaggerated symptoms of anxiety and day sleepiness. She held interesting conversations with the audience on the reasons behind intense social media use and the need to educate our youth and their teachers on their importance of sleep.

Note : Visit our SERL website page to view full profiles of all current members and collaborators.

Sleep Education and Research Laboratory (SERL) directed by Dr Dagmara Dimitriou, is based at the Department of Psychology and Human Development Department, Institute of Education at UCL, and is committed to high quality research across a range of neurodevelopmental conditions across the globe.

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