Sleeping in Space.

How do astronauts sleep in space? A visiting sleep researcher is shedding light on the effects of spaceflight on astronauts’ sleeping patterns.

Dr Laura Barger, an instructor at Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine and an Associate Physiologist at Brigham and the Women’s Hospital in Boston, investigated the sleep of astronauts on Space Shuttle and International Space Station missions over the past decade, and is bringing her expertise to Melbourne.

A former Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, Dr Barger’s research interests have focused on the health and safety risks associated with unusual and extended work hours. As part of the Harvard Work Hours, Health and Safety Group, she has also studied medical residents, police officers, firefighters, federal air marshals, and mission controllers supporting the Phoenix Mars Lander mission.

Dr Barger said astronauts face a number of challenges when trying to sleep in space including unusual shift patterns, which could have similar effects observed in some shift workers on earth, a 90-minute light-dark cycle for every time astronauts orbit the earth and the physical ‘free-fall’ sleeping environment.

“We studied sleep aboard Space Shuttle and International Space Station Missions and found there is a vast amount of sleep deficiency among astronauts and a widespread use of sleep promoting medications during spaceflight,” Dr Barger said.

Dr Barger is in Melbourne with the support of the Harvard Club of Australia Foundation. She will work with Monash University sleep researchers, including Associate Professor Shantha Rajaratnam, also a member of the Harvard Work Hours, Health, and Safety Group, on the association between work hours, sleep deficiency and motor vehicle crashes.

“Across all occupations, one safety outcome we measure is the incidence of motor vehicle crashes. One goal of the Harvard Work Hours Health and Safety Group is to come up with a strategy for future research examining drowsy driving,” Dr Barger said.

In addition to undertaking research, Dr Barger will conduct a series of lectures and seminars at Monash, sharing her insight into the effects of spaceflight on sleep and the circadian timing system and the effects of extended work hours and sleep loss on health and safety.


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