UniSA’s sleep lab uncovering impacts of night work, poor quality ZZZs

Sleep – it’s as essential as breathing and as crucial as eating. But are we getting enough shut-eye?

“No,” says Professor Siobhan Banks from the University of South Australia’s Centre for Sleep Research.

“We’re seeing quite a significant number of the population getting less than six hours of sleep a night and this is leading to all sorts of issues with productivity at work, significant sleepiness leading to accidents on the road and costing businesses a lot of money.”

Prof Banks is Associate Professor in the Centre for Sleep Research at UniSA’s Magill campus, one of the premier sleep research facilities in Australia featuring a sleep laboratory led by experts in human sleep, biological rhythms, sleep disorders, cognitive neuroscience, shift work and patient safety.

Prof Banks has dedicated much of her research career to exploring the impacts of sleep deprivation and shift work on psychological and physiological functioning and what can be done to prevent the detrimental effects of disturbed sleep.

“It’s really about thinking how we can improve sleep for everybody. We can’t stop shift work and new parents can’t suddenly sleep walk,” she says. “So how can we help everybody within their lifestyle manage their fatigue and sleep better?”

Prof Siobhan Banks’s research examines the impact of sleep deprivation and shift work on psychological and physiological functioning. Photo: Defence Innovation Partnership.

Prof Banks is a board member of the Sleep Health Foundation which in 2017 released a report, prepared by Deloitte Access Economics, that investigated the economic consequences of poor sleep.

The report, Asleep on the Job: Counting the Cost of Poor Sleep, estimated that inadequate sleep was believed to cost the Australian economy $66.3 billion in 2016/17 including productivity losses of $17.9 billion.

It also estimated that almost 40% of Australian adults experience some form of inadequate sleep – something which can have fatal consequences while driving on the road or contribute to work-related accidents. Chronic inadequate sleep can also cause heart disease, obesity, depression and a range of other serious health issues.

With sleep being an integral part of our lives (the average human spends one third of their life sleeping) long periods of sleep enables us to survive, allowing our bodies to restore and rejuvenate, grow muscle, repair tissue and synthesise hormones.

Prof Banks says there two basic types of sleep – rapid eye movement (REM) sleep which is quite active and non-REM sleep which is non-active.

“The sleep that’s not (active) is the deep stage where it takes a lot for you to wake up. It’s that stage you’re very relaxed, your breathing slows, your temperature stays low, your body stops metabolising, stops producing urine, it’s where your brain really shuts down and enables a period of rest and recovery,” she says.

Prof Banks says the whole process of sleep is important meaning that if a person isn’t getting enough sleep or is disrupting the structure of sleep – they miss out on not entering these deep stages of sleep, as well as dreaming sleep.

“A lot of people only get by on 5-6 hours of sleep which isn’t really enough, and we know that that’s related to a whole bunch of other health-related conditions. Shift workers are trying to sleep at times when our body is really prime for wake.”

Poor sleep quality is something affecting shift workers or those working outside of the usual nine-to-five day. Prof Banks says much of our physiology and how we metabolise food is linked to daytime hours, when our bodies are used to getting food and can metabolise it properly.

Shift workers on the other hand are awake and eating through the night, even though their bodies aren’t prepared for receiving food. Prof Banks says the disruption of these internal body clocks is putting shift workers at increased risk of obesity and Type 2 Diabetes.

UniSA is currently working on a study, with funding from the University of Adelaide and the National Health and Medical Research Council, to investigate altering meals times to reverse metabolic consequences of shift work.

Preliminary research undertaken on rodents found that rats that fasted during a simulated night shift environment suffered fewer ill effects than the rats that ate during the night.

This study led to a small-scale pilot study on five human male volunteers at the Centre of Sleep Research before the much larger, both male and female study commenced. Data is currently being accumulated, in aim of the results helping form industry recommendations and policy guidance, leading to a reduction in metabolic disease in shift workers.

As for other sleep disrupters in 21st century life, the impact of smart phones on sleep is a cause of debate for sleep experts, Prof Banks says.

“There is quite a bit of debate in our field whether these items of technology are affecting our sleep because of the light emitted from the screen or whether it’s more to do with the psychological effect of having emails, playing games or texting late into the night,” she says.

“But I think the amount of technology that we have in our lives and the amount of technology that we rely on if definitely meaning that sleep is becoming less of a priority.”

So how much sleep does the average human actually need and can we survive on as little as four or five hours a night?

“You’re probably looking at 7-8 hours as the optimal amount of sleep … but some people are just naturally able to get away with a shorter amount, and some people need a much longer amount. Generally, people know themselves how much they need,” Prof Banks says.

“We know there are a lot more people living on 4-5 hours a night than there actually should be. While there are some people who can do it, the majority of adults need more like seven, but those numbers are different for children, teenagers and older people as well.”

Industry in focus: Health

Throughout the month of April, the state’s health industry will be explored as part of I Choose SA.

South Australia’s health sector is among the best in the world, renowned for developing new and advanced technologies and research outcomes. Our health industry infrastructure is world-class, providing new pathways and job opportunities, as well as a growing potential for health tourism.

Read more health stories here.

Visit I Choose SA to meet the people building business and industry in SA, and to find out how your choices make a difference to our state.

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MOD. shocks with pain chairs, futuristic babies and Josh the robot

A lifelike robot head modelled on a real-life teenager, modified silicone babies, and a room dedicated to testing the perception of pain – welcome to the Museum of Discovery (MOD.).

The interactive public science and creativity space’s director, Dr Kristin Alford, says the museum has already attracted up to 6000 people since opening in May this year.

The futuristic museum of discovery, housed in the University of South Australia’s $247m health and research facility, aims to inspire young adults about the world of science and technology.

MOD. sets out to help shape people’s understanding of the world and explore possibilities of the future.

“We’re here to inspire young adults aged 15–25 about the potential of science and technology for their futures, whether that’s to keep them engaged in science and tech for their careers or just keep them engaged in, enjoying and appreciating science,” Dr Alford says.

“We will need science for most careers of the future.”

Josh the robot ‘wakes up’ when approached.

Spread over seven galleries across two floors, the rotating exhibitions at MOD. change every six months.

Among the exhibitions is a lifelike robot head placed in the corner.

Approach ‘Josh’ – modelled on a real life 18-year-old Adelaide man – and he will speak, 14 small motors under his skin controlling his expressions to match his words.

But to reach Josh, visitors must stroll past Transfigurations, a conversation starter by Agi Haines that explores surgical enhancement of babies to adapt to future conditions.

One of the baby’s heads features extra folds of skin allowing for greater ventilation to adapt to global warming, while a feature on another baby allows for faster absorption of caffeine.

Visitors wander through each of the silicone babies that have surgically enhanced features to help them cope with future conditions.

Another of MOD.’s highlights is the ‘pain room’ – a dark space dedicated to exploring the human perception of pain.

Two armchairs in the middle of the room invite daring visitors to sit, before they’re distracted by pictures and given a minor electric shock.

MOD.’s permanent exhibition is the Universal Gallery’s first Science on a Sphere – an Australian first featuring a large sphere hanging from the ceiling.

At the touch of a button the sphere can be transformed into planet Earth, the sun, moons, and other planets, and is currently set up to explore astronomy with Aboriginal stories.

Data can also be projected onto the sphere, showing weather movements and other data.

MOD.’s Universal Gallery is a permanent exhibition.

Dr Alford spent two years collaborating with researchers, artists, the public, students and government to build the futuristic museum, which she says is attracting about 1500 visitors a week.

Among the visitors who have so far stuck in her memory is a teenager who spent more than two hours exploring MOD. with her family.

“I went into the Universal Gallery on opening weekend and there was a 14 year-old-girl, she was wearing a t-shirt that said, ‘don’t talk to me’,” Dr Alford says.

“She just laid back and cried, ‘I love this place!’.

“She and her dad and sisters were still there two hours later exploring everything.”

Dr Alford has lived in SA for over a decade and is originally from Brisbane.

When she arrived in Adelaide she admits that things “felt a bit flat”.

MOD. director Dr Kristin Alford.

“I could see that there were lots of exciting things under the surface because as a futurist that’s what you’re looking for,” she says.

“I think there was a lot of discussion around that time around advanced manufacturing and there was a desire for things to move on but yet to see the traction.

“In the last 10 years I think we’ve seen that traction … with the work that’s being done at Tonsley (Innovation District) and there’s a whole lot of work that’s going on in creative industries and technology, co-working spaces, and software development.”

Dr Alford says Adelaide’s small size makes it the perfect place for entrepreneurs, artists and scientists to make connections fast.

“You can quickly find interesting people doing really interesting things,” she says.

“If you want to connect with an artist or a scientist to explore something it’s not hard, it’s probably two phone calls away.”

MOD.’s current exhibitions will remain until November when new installations will move in.

Entry to MOD. is free and it’s open every day except Mondays.

Visit I Choose SA to meet the people building business and industry in SA, and to find out how your choices make a difference to our state.

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The woman behind the research of tomorrow

By Melissa Keogh

South Australia is full of brainiacs and Professor Emily Hilder is one of them.

The influential researcher was raised in Tasmania and grew to become one of Australia’s top research chemists.

She was lured to Adelaide in 2016 to head up the University of South Australia’s new multi-million dollar Future Industries Institute (FII).

Prof. Hilder says she was inspired by South Australia’s “incredible optimism” about future industries.

“If I was going to live anywhere else in Australia, it would be South Australia,” she says.

“I saw in SA an incredible optimism about what could be done in the future … there are some challenges we are facing but how are we going to tackle those together?

“I could see the opportunity for me to make a real difference in this space and I could see a real drive from the universities and business centres to make a difference.”

Formerly of the University of Tasmania, Prof. Hilder held a spot on the Analytical Scientist’s Power List from 2013-16 and has published more than 100 academic publications in her time.

Professor Emily Hilder is a leading research chemist who came to South Australia to lead UniSA's Future Industries Institute.

Professor Emily Hilder is a leading research chemist who came to South Australia to lead UniSA’s Future Industries Institute.

Prof. Hilder’s passion at the FII is to deliver research to solve “real world problems” in engineering, science and biotechnology.

These include something as bold as treating cancer to developing products for the renewable energy sector and finding solutions to food wastage.

Opened at Mawson Lakes in 2015, the FII is home to research students and top professors who conduct industry-connected research and innovation across four key strands.

These are minerals and resources engineering, energy and advanced manufacturing, environmental science and engineering, and biomaterials, engineering and nanomedicine.

One of the projects Prof. Hilder is most passionate about is the ongoing research into micro-sampling of biological fluids.

This research could pave the way for moving from the traditional needle-in-the-arm blood test to a more tolerable, single blood drop sample.

“I’m particularly passionate about micro sampling of biological fluids (blood, saliva, spinal fluid) to be less invasive and more user friendly,” she says.

“It’s moving from a particular sample from a vein which a lot of people don’t enjoy, to being able to take a single drop of blood and use it for various analytical samples.”

Professor Emily Hilder says she was drawn to SA's optimism about its future industries which include advanced manufacturing and

Professor Emily Hilder says she was drawn to SA’s optimism about its future industries which include advanced manufacturing and nanomedicine.

Food wastage and security is another of Prof. Hilder’s research passions.

“Some of our researches have been working on screening technology that’s fast, cheap, and simple that can screen for microorganism spoilage in foods,” she says.

“One of the challenges we have in particular for small businesses which is a large part of our food industry is being able to maintain quality product.”

The FII’s focus is research that is relevant to industry and Prof. Hilder says small to medium enterprises (SMEs) are one of SA’s biggest growth sectors.

“98% of businesses are SMEs who have less than 20 employees,” she says.

“I’m passionate about working at the interface between academia and industry and the University is doing something quite different.

“It’s a really exciting opportunity to be a part of something right from the beginning.”

This month’s I Choose SA for Industries stories are made possible by sponsor, the University of South Australia.