Seeking solutions to sleep disorders, and lack of sleep

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Getting enough sleep is a problem for more than 1.5 million Australians – with many more experiencing at least one bad night’s rest a week.

Now a new $4 million high-tech centre, housing the Flinders University Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health, has become the first in the world to allow for a full range of human sleep research, bringing much needed support to combat the rising tide of chronic sleep disorders.

It’s estimated sleep disorders and inadequate or poor sleep affects about 40% of the Australian adult population, costing more than $60 billion in lost productivity and loss of wellbeing every year.*

The Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health – located at bigger premises specially designed for sleep research at the Mark Oliphant Building in Bedford Park – sets a new standard for scientists and clinicians to conduct a wide range of sleep experiments including:

  • intricate physiological measurements of breathing and brain activity,
  • sleep deprivation studies, and
  • acoustic experiments on the effects of night-time environmental noise such as traffic or even wind turbines on sleep.

The modern centre will combine with the clinical respiratory and sleep diagnostic services at Flinders Medical Centre to create Australia’s biggest clinical and sleep research facility.

AISH director, 2019 incoming Matthew Flinders Professor Danny Eckert, works on finding much-needed and targeted treatments for sleep apnoea, which affects more than 1 million Australians every night.

Professor Eckert’s latest research is challenging the notion that sleeping pills hinder rather than help people with sleep apneoa.

“Sleep apneoa can lead to various health problems including diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, high blood pressure, impaired cognitive function, decreased quality of life and patients are more likely to be involved in motor vehicular accidents,” he says.

“Our current studies show that certain drugs may both aid in sleep and reduce the main cause of sleep apneoa, that is the obstruction of the airway around the throat area.”

More than 40 experts from many fields of sleep health will come together in spacious facilities (900 sq m) including dedicated research and laboratory spaces and six specially configured bedrooms to conduct live-in sleep deprivation and circadian experiments.

NHMRC Professor Doug McEvoy, left, Health Minister Stephen Wade, Vice-Chancellor Professor Colin Stirling and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Robert Saint at the official launch of the Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health at Flinders University. One of the new laboratories has been named in honour of the contributions made by late Flinders Professor Nick Antic.

“The institute is a Flinders Centre of Research Excellence, widely recognised as a world leader in sleep health,” says Professor Eckert, who previously led the NSW Neuroscience Research Australia centre.

Founded by luminaries such as sleep apnoea expert NHMRC Practitioner Fellow Professor Doug McEvoy and circadian researcher Professor Leon Lack who invented Re-Timer glasses, the AISH continues to break new ground since starting in 2002.

“Sleep is the third pillar of health alongside diet and exercise, but is something many of us can’t control,” says Professor Eckert. “Although it’s challenging in today’s 24-hour society, we can choose to change our diet,  undertake more exercise and make more time for sleep.

“However, getting restorative sleep can be a real problem if we are one of the 1.5 million Australian adults who suffer from a sleep disorder such as insomnia or sleep apnoea – or if there are environmental causes such as external noise, shift-work, jetlag or a medical conditions such as back pain.”

The AISH also houses the National Centre for Sleep Health Services Research, funded by a $2.5 million NHMRC Centres of Research Excellence grant, and an NHMRC Career Fellowship awarded to Dr Andrew Vakulin.

AISH Medical Director, Professor in Respiratory and Sleep Medicine Robert Adams, says the work being undertaken at the Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health is very important, “both on our individual health and the impact on the economy”.

“Regular good sleep is essential for good health, safety and performance,” says Professor Adams, a specialist respiratory and general physician with extensive experience in public health, clinical epidemiology and health services research.

“Sleep problems are often complex and require specialist services for diagnosis and management.

“Ongoing research is urgently needed to provide evidence-based guidance towards more efficient and cost-effective practices to better manage the remarkably common and costly community burden of untreated and often undiagnosed sleep problems across the community,” Professor Adams says.

Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health leaders, director Matthew Flinders Professor Danny Eckert, left, Professor Robert Adams, Professor Doug McEvoy and Associate Professor Andrew Vakulin. at the new facilities at Bedford Park.

* The total cost of diagnosed sleep disorders to Australia’s economy every year is about $31 billion in disability-adjusted life-year costs and a further $5.1 billion annually through the adverse effects of poor sleep on traffic and work accidents and related physical and mental health (# Deloitte Access Economics, ‘Re-awakening Australia: The economic cost of sleep disorders in Australia,’ 2010).

Researchers demonstrate one of the sleep experiments at the new sleep lab.
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