Woman with eyes closed and a vector of a brain overlaying the photo. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Technology is radically changing sleep as we know it

From sleep trackers to wakefulness drugs, the 21st century has seen an influx of new technology that could radically alter the way we sleep.

This article was published by The Conversation.

Many of these new technologies chase the dream of optimised slumber. They promise to help tailor our sleep schedules to fit around our social lives, help us sleep for longer or even skip a night’s sleep altogether.

Here’s how technology is permeating our sleep, and what the future holds.

Time to wake up

Sleeping pills have recently been joined by a wave of wakefulness drugs, purportedly safer and more powerful alternatives to caffeine. It seems that they work best on people who are already sleep deprived and don’t have a huge effect on those who are already well rested.

Modafinil is touted for its cognition enhancing effects (especially in sleep-deprived people) and can supposedly keep people awake and alert for several days at a time. Some scientific studies are showing that this may indeed be the case, although results are mixed, with other research showing the effects are similar to caffeine.

The drug was developed to help people with narcolepsy but some have started using it for its focus-enhancing effects. It is a controlled drug (prescription only) in most countries. People who use it for cognitive enhancement or wakefulness are buying it on the black market or getting it from friends who have a prescription.

Modafinil is popular with students – in 2020, Loughborough University researchers found that, of 506 students surveyed at 54 UK universities, 19% had taken cognitive enhancement substances.

But people who take them for non-medical purposes are risking their health. Studies of the safety of these drugs do not consider this type of use. We don’t know what using these drugs to stay awake for long periods of time does to people’s bodies. But we do know that disrupting your sleep pattern (for example, shift work) is linked to health problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Recent studies suggest some people are combining sleep and wakefulness pills to manage their body rhythms and optimise their sleep or unwind after a day of hard work. The effects of taking wakefulness pills with other drugs is largely unknown.

In the UK sale or supply of a prescription-only or unlicensed medicine is a criminal offence. Whereas in the US, even possession of stimulants without a prescription is a crime.

Smart sleep

Many people already use smart watches, smart jewellery and fitness bands to track their sleep – for example, alarms that wake people up at the optimal point in their sleep cycle and motion sensor apps that analyse sleep patterns.

New ways of tracking sleep could soon include donning a pair of pyjamas embedded with sensors to track changes in posture, respiratory and heart rate, or hugging a robot pillow, whose algorithm creates a breathing pattern to mimic and help you fall asleep.

Meanwhile, care robots have already been trialled in Japan to test whether they could help older people sleep better. Designed to watch over residents at night in care homes, they give staff information on how well the residents are sleeping and let them know if anyone goes for a nocturnal wander...

Continue reading the article by Dr Catherine Coveney, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Loughborough University, and Dr Eric Hsu, Lecturer in Sociology at the University of South Australia, on the Conversation website

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 23/84

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2023 QS World University Rankings – the seventh year running – and University of the Year for Sport by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is ranked 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2023, 10th in the Guardian University League Table 2023 and 11th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2023.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’, and in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 over 90% of its research was rated as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally-excellent’. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.