Sleep Research

August 21, 1981

Report Outline
The Mystery of Sleep
Advances in Recent Years
Disorders and Treatment
Special Focus

The Mystery of Sleep

The Need for Sleep and Its Function

Most of us sleep at least once a day and wake up feeling relatively refreshed. Slipping into the unconsciousness of sleep is, for many, as natural and pleasurable as eating or laughing. But for millions of Americans, sleeping is a problem that disrupts their lives to some degree. They have trouble falling asleep, they sleep too much, they fall asleep suddenly at inappropriate times, or they sporadically stop breathing during sleep. Researchers here and abroad are probing sleep's mysteries and learning how to apply their findings to help those suffering from the sleep disorders that now make up an entire area of clinical medicine.

The discovery of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and its significance in 1953 by Dr. William C. Dement of the Stanford University Medical School marked the beginning of modern sleep research. As the understanding of normal sleep grew, researchers began to realize the potential value of evaluating abnormal or disrupted sleep. A recent trend has been the development of sleep centers that specialize in clinical studies in both the laboratory and an outpatient setting, where patients' sleep disorders are evaluated and diagnosed. When researchers discover the causes of a sleep problem, they generally send patients back to their physicians for long-term care.

One does not have to be a scientist to know that to function normally, it is necessary to sleep. Yet although researchers are continually making new discoveries about the nature of sleep and what it does, they still are puzzled about exactly why people sleep. It may be that sleep evolved as organisms were adjusting to the 24-hour rotation of the Earth and that the rest phase in primitive organisms' biological rhythms gradually developed into sleep. One theory is that sleep is a physical restorative and another is that it is a kind of behavioral adaptation. “Perhaps,” wrote Dr. Dement in Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep, “family life itself originated from the need to sleep and to cluster for protection while in this [vulnerable] state.”

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