The Science of Sleep @ Google, London

10th December 2015 by Peter Hames

Sleep science Sleepio experts Sleepio news

Russell Foster

Russell Foster’s TED talk, ‘Why do we sleep?’, has received over 5 million hits!

The Sleepio team joined forces with Russell Foster, Professor of Circadian Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, last week, in the latest in a series of events to promote the importance of sleep at Google’s London HQ. Our visit last October revealed on the links between sleep and work performance. This time the focus was the neuroscience of sleep and mental health.

Russell kicked off by establishing why we should care about our sleep health. Considering that we spend a third of our lives in this oh-so-vital state, many of us are guilty of taking it for granted. Russell discussed some of the lesser known short term consequences of sleep loss, including impulsivity and so-called ‘micro-sleeps’ which – though short – can be deadly if you’re behind the wheel. Sleep disruption influences a surprising array of bodily systems and processes, including immune defences, appetite, blood pressure and the metabolic processes which influence our risk of diabetes

How sleep differs from resting

Resting can’t substitute for sleep – it might seem counterintuitive, but the brain doesn’t just take a break once we’ve fallen asleep. The recordings of brain activity shown above reveal that brain is more active in deep, slow wave sleep, than when we’re awake.

As a circadian neuroscientist, Russell has spent many years investigating how light influences our sleep-wake rhythm. His team was behind the discovery of a photoreceptor in the eye which uses light to govern our master body clock. Opthalmologists initially found it hard to believe that light sensors had any functions beyond visual sight, but some ingenious animal studies revealed the critical role of these cells. Without these photoreceptors, mice completely lost their regular sleep and wake cycles – as if they were living in a state of perpetual jetlag.

Photosensitive Retinal Ganglion Cells

Images of Photosensitive Retinal Ganglion Cells, which govern our sleep-wake rhythms in response to light

If science had overlooked these photoreceptors for such a long time, what else might we still be missing? A link between sleep and mental illness?

We know that sleep problems are highly comorbid with several mental health problems such as depression or schizophrenia. For decades, particularly in schizophrenia, sleep disruption has been viewed as a by-product of the medication used to manage the illness. Could it be that the mechanisms in the brain that generate normal sleep and mental health overlap?

Russell made a strong case for this by presenting the results of a recent study in which patients with schizophrenia were treated with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). Post-treatment, not only did their sleep improve, but incidences of delusional behaviour were halved.

Dr Sophie Bostock reinforced Russell’s key messages by presenting some of our latest data from the workplace. Our recent trial found that addressing sleep problems with Sleepio, a digital form of CBT-I, also improves measures of emotional wellbeing (such as ability to cope with stress) and productivity at work.

Can it be said that sleep protects against poor mental health? Increasingly compelling evidence points that way, but we’ll keep you posted as the evidence develops.


  1. Jamy says:

    Thanks for sharing the talk from Russell! It’s so incredibly interesting how sleep works in the brain.
    Especially considering how much we still don’t know.
    Keep up the good work, Sleepio!

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