Monday, February 18, 2008

Desensitization of Circadian Responses to Light

A lot of people have asked me about the sleep study; perhaps because they wanted to know whether it was an experience comparable to Turkish imprisonment or a genuinely good way to make some money. That I emerged from the study coherently sane seemed to reassure them.

I spent fourteen days sequestered within Suite 5 of the 9B Circadian Rhythm Research Lab as part of a series of ongoing research studies through Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The room was larger than I expected—maybe twenty feet by twenty feet—and included a dresser, an electric hospital bed, a large desk, a scale, two video cameras, two testing computers, a closet, a bathroom with the usual furnishings, and a massive tangle of cords and outlets that sprang from the wall behind the bed. To secure the sense of timelessness, the suite had no windows, and clocks were prohibited. The ceiling was composed entirely of florescent lights that maintained the necessary brightness or dimness levels for the study, and the exit door opened out to a foyer that led back into the research lab.

Aside from the amount of light in the room—which alternated between several days of bright and several of dim—every wake period (to use 9B terminology) was exactly the same. My wake period began when the lights went on and I took a test asking me to rate my alertness level and then add as many two-digit numbers as I could within a certain time (not a fun way to start the day). This test was repeated at slightly longer intervals until I was finally allowed out of bed, my IV and head electrodes unplugged from the wall, and given breakfast. All of my meals were large, repetitious, and came labeled with bright-green stickers labeled MUST FINISH, which I would tear off. After breakfast, a Tech used acetone to remove the electrodes glued to my scalp and wrapped my IV bandage in rubber so I could shower and enjoy some blissful privacy. The real testing—a monotonous series of computer programs that scaled my cognitive abilities, mood, and reaction time—began after lunch, and consumed much of my wake period. For a challenge, I attempted to achieve my own best time for the Visual Alertness Test (normal human reaction time is between 250-350 milliseconds):


Visual Alertness Test High Scores


                             1.              139              IAN
                             2.              142              IAN
                             3.              145              IMR
                             4.              155              IAN
                             5.              157              IMR
                             6.              160              IAN
                             7.              162              IAN
                             8.              163              IAN
                             9.              163              SEX
                             10.            165               IAN

The testing alarm rang out at frustratingly frequent intervals, dividing the time between lunch and dinner into smaller periods that I used to write letters, keep up with my journal, read, watch movies on the bright days (9B offered an above-average selection of DVDs and videos, many of which had been stolen. Thankfully, Take the Money and Run and Casablanca had not), solve Sodokus, or listen to music. Every wake period, my project leader Melanie would also pay me a visit to deliver e-mails from friends, make sure that I was still in good spirits, and talk about Blade Runner or Degrassi (Melanie grew up watching the original series with German subtitles, which made for a good bonding experience). Then came dinner, and time for a Tech to attach electrodes to my scalp and face so they could record my eye movements and brain activity while I slept. More testing and a snack preceded bedtime, when another Tech would shut off the computers and plug my electrodes into the wall before the lights went out.

The only change came my two Constant Routines when I had to remain awake in bed hooked up to electrodes for a period not to exceed forty hours. Computer testing continued, and my meals were replaced by frequent snacks consisting of one quarter of a sandwich, some apple juice, and water. A Tech stayed in the room with me, and time passed quickly as long as we could keep a conversation going. (I got to know many of the Techs during Constant Routines, and shared deep, meaningful insights with people I will probably never see again.) The experience turned hellish during Light Exposure, when the lights shone at full brightness and I was forced to stare at a sinister looking eyeball taped to the wall for an egregiously long period of time. More conversation and a copy of Angela’s Ashes on tape (abridged, but read by the author) helped keep me awake when drowsiness set in, though by the end I was nodding off during tests, barely able to keep my eyes open. Just when I couldn’t take it anymore, the room plunged into a cool dimness as refreshing as an air-conditioned basement on a hot day. The remaining time was easier, and I read or played Othello with the Techs until the moment finally came for sleep.

Aside from the Light Exposure, the entire study was pleasantly mellow, and not the isolated confinement colored with introverted activities that I had anticipated. The Techs drifted in and out of the room constantly and provided good company every wake period, for they seemed to appreciate my friendliness as relief from their own monotonous routines. All of them were in my age group; some were Northeastern undergrads working co-ops (like an FWT, but for a whole semester), some were former co-ops working part-time, some were in graduate school, some were studying abroad from Britain, and others just needed money. They were interested in lab research; nursing; becoming MDs; never becoming MDs; working with animals; going to law school; producing music; and in one case, completing a Ph.D. in Circadian Rhythm Research. 9B seemed a place where young people came to work at the crossroads of their lives.

Would I go back for another study, perhaps to try thirty-eight days, or sixty? Possibly. There were low points, sure (Light Exposure, the first two wake periods adjusting to a new routine, the occasional pang of awful loneliness, and of course the, er, temperature sensor), but these did not bother me most days. Instead, I wallowed in a state of scientifically controlled timelessness where the outside world had no meaning; far away from barking dogs, student loans, Facebook updates, car repairs, snowy driveways, and ex-girlfriends—dreaming of all the money I was making. It was valuable time away; to relax, think, and try something new, but seeing the daylight again was as refreshing as waking up after a good night’s sleep.

1 comment:

Daniucs said...

that seals the deal for me... I'm applying for any and all of these.