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New NASA-Funded Study At University Of Pittsburgh To Simulate Space Mission Sleep Schedules

PITTSBURGH, February 22, 2001 A new NASA-funded research study at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine will help the space agency determine the safest method for rearranging astronauts’ sleep schedules to meet time-critical mission demands.

“In space, night and day, as we know them, cease to exist,” said Timothy H. Monk, professor of psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “In an orbiting spacecraft the sun rises and sets every 90 minutes, while the body clock is still running on a 24-hour cycle. It can wreak havoc on alertness and performance.”

According to Dr. Monk, certain missions require astronauts to shift their sleep schedules several hours in order to be awake and alert for, say, a rendezvous with a satellite. If they made the time shift all at once, they would get crippling jet lag and might not be alert enough to carry out the mission safely. Imagine moving instantly from Sydney, Australia to Pittsburgh and then being expected to work an 8-hour day.

In order to avoid these problems as much as possible, NASA developed “Appendix K,” a set of rules that governs how and when astronauts can safely rearrange their sleep schedules.

For example, suppose repairs had to be made to a satellite which could only be reached by the space shuttle crew at 3 a.m. Performance would need to be optimal, so how could the crew best change their routine to be both awake and alert for the 3 a.m. rendezvous?

The solution, according to Appendix K, is to shift the sleep pattern gradually over several days, either by having the astronaut wake up later each day or earlier each day. The gradual shift allows the body clock to adjust more safely. The Pitt study will help NASA determine which direction of sleep shift works best.

In the research study, volunteers will spend 16 days in the Biological Rhythms Laboratory (BRL) located in Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh. The BRL is able to closely approximate the unusual time conditions that exist in space. It is a completely enclosed living space, similar to an apartment, in which there are no clues as to the true time of day – even light coming in through the “windows” is artificial and is controlled by technicians. During their stay in the BRL, study participants will be given performance tests so researchers can keep track of their alertness and ability to perform the types of tasks real astronauts need to do and will have their sleep and circadian rhythms measured.

Study volunteers, who must be between the ages of 30 and 59, will live in the BRC in groups of two to four individuals for 16 days. Their sleep, body temperature and alertness will be measured. During free time, participants will be able to work on their own projects, read a book or play board games or cards with each other. All participants who complete the study will be paid $900.

This study is no longer recruiting volunteers.

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