Did you know the brain is hard at work while we sleep? I’m determined to find out how sleep can improve children’s cognitive development and achievement
My fascination with sleep started as a child. I was a sleep-walking child with a sleep-talking sister. Listening to her nocturnal nonsense and my parents’ stories of my own wanderings always amused me and spurred me to find out more about this phenomenon that we know so little about.
My journey began at Coventry University with a psychology degree. I then moved to London and completed a masters in cognitive neuropsychology at UCL. There I undertook my thesis on the cognitive effects of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep behaviour disorder in adults. I was supervised by Annette Karmiloff-Smith, a world-renowned professor in the field of neurodevelopmental disorders with an interest in sleep. At the end of my masters she offered me a research assistant job for a project on sleep and learning in children with Williams syndrome, a rare genetic condition.
I became really interested in the importance of sleep for cognition. We all know that when we are tired our attention suffers and we’re more likely to be moody, but did you also know that during sleep the brain is hard at work making sure that you remember all the stuff you learnt that day? In fact during sleep the brain isn’t resting; at certain points it’s just as active as during the day.
Needless to say, sleep problems can have a huge impact on our physical and psychological health. Children who have difficulty sleeping are more likely to experience problems in other areas of their lives compared to children who sleep well. For example, they are more likely to be hyperactive and have behavioural problems, as well as a whole host of wide-ranging cognitive difficulties (such as with planning, problem solving and language). It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this affects their classroom learning and grades.
Sleep problems are remarkably common in children, particularly those with developmental disorders. These range from snoring, bedwetting and difficulty falling asleep to serious clinical problems like obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome, where the airway becomes blocked, causing difficulty breathing.
It came as a shock to me that, given the wealth of evidence for sleep problems in developmental disorders, the research investigating associated problems with cognition in these children barely exists. Doesn’t it stand to reason that sleep problems could be contributing to some of the health, cognitive and behavioural problems faced by these children? And since sleep problems can often be treated relatively simply, then wouldn’t that improve their life prospects?
I continued researching this area for my PhD, looking at the effects of sleep on learning and cognition in children with Down syndrome and Williams syndrome. My results were exciting but sleep didn’t appear to be related to cognition in these children in the same way that it was for typically developing children. It’s something that needs some further study, as I’m still convinced that sleep problems have a negative impact on cognition for children with developmental disorders. It’s just that in my study these effects were masked by children’s wide range of difficulties, levels of ability and motivation to succeed. Syndrome severity varies considerably between children so it can be difficult to tease apart the characteristics that you’re interested in from a background of intellectual disability.
After finishing my PhD I worked at Evelina London Children’s Hospital, which houses the UK’s leading centre for child sleep disorders. I worked on what was to become the largest characterisation study of obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome in infants and young children with Down syndrome.
I also had the opportunity to learn the technical side of sleep studies and work with children with a wide range of neurodevelopmental disorders. Across the board parents anecdotally report that their children perform better the next day if they have slept well- something I’m determined to find out more about.
I moved back to Coventry in September 2014 and have since been working on several projects on cognition and behaviour. I was awarded pump prime funding for a study on sleep and cognitive development in pre-schoolers with Down syndrome, which is now well underway. I intend to move on to intervention studies to see whether improving sleep leads to improvements in cognitive abilities. Ultimately I hope that my research will be used to improve children’s learning by developing educational strategies that factor in children’s night time sleep as an influencer of daytime abilities, with the goal of improving achievement and quality of life.