It’s time for travelers to say goodnight to jet lag.
At least that’s the goal of a pair of Vassar alumnae/i who, by happenstance, met on the Stanford University campus a year ago and are now dreaming up a sleep mask designed to trick the brain into overcoming the sleep disruption associated with changes in time zones.
The as-yet unnamed mask is even being considered as a remedy for “social jet lag,” the malaise brought on by long days and nights in a world that increasingly has come to see a good night’s slumber as expendable.
“We’re basically hacking your brain,” says Kristin (Rule) Gleitsman ’02, co-founder of Menlo Park, Calif.-based LumosTech, a startup based on technology that was invented by Jamie Zeitzer ’93, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford.
Just how does it work?
By connecting the mask to an app-equipped smartphone, mask wearers can program their travel schedule and normal sleep time. While they’re sleeping, they will be exposed to a two-millisecond pulse of light every minute during a predefined period of the night. The signal makes its way to the brain’s suprachiasmatic nucleus, a patch of nerve cells in the hypothalamus that’s responsible for controlling the body’s circadian rhythm—or sleep-wake cycles.
Like early-morning sunbeams streaming into a bedroom, the light pulses mimic real conditions to reset the body’s internal clock. The mask, which is still in its development stage, is expected to nullify up to three hours of jet lag for each day used. Left to occur naturally, the body normally adjusts by an hour a day.
For non-travelers, including sleep-averse teenagers, the light pulses could reprogram the body clock by two hours per day.
“What this mask will do is trick your body into thinking that it’s 6 a.m. at 9 a.m., essentially,” Gleitsman says. “The next night, you’ll feel ready to go to bed at the right time. It moves you to where you want to be.”
“I was honestly a bit skeptical at first,” adds Gleitsman, who holds a doctorate in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology. “It sounded a bit like a novelty, one of those things that promises to solve all kinds of problems. But the thing that sold it for me was the science behind it. It went from weird novelty to ‘hey, that’s wild and awesome.’”
The market for such a device could be huge. The National Institutes of Health suggests school-age children need 10 hours of sleep per night, while teens and adults require 9-10 hours and 7-8 hours, respectively. The reality is much different. Surveys have shown that nearly 30 percent of adults get six hours or less of sleep per night, while only 31 percent of high school students log at least eight hours of sleep on a school night.
Stanford researchers previously had studied the effects of light pulses on mice, “but it sounded pretty ridiculous that it would work on humans,” Zeitzer says. “Usually, when you’re looking to treat various kinds of circadian-based problems, such as shift work or jet lag, you’re looking at hours of continuous light exposure. These pulses are thousands of times shorter than anyone had ever looked at.”
“We’re taking advantage of something that would never occur naturally,” Zeitzer continues. “Evolutionarily, there’s no such thing as jet lag. If you traveled by foot or by horse, you would not be crossing multiple time zones so quickly.”
Zeitzer has been studying the effects of light pulses on humans for five years, supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, as well as the U.S. Air Force, whose pilots routinely change time zones and who must be prepared for missions on short notice.
While Stanford holds the patent on the technology, it wasn’t until Gleitsman, then conducting postdoctoral biochemistry research at the university, joined four peers to work with Stanford’s Office of Technology Licensing to build a business and marketing plan around Zeitzer’s work.
It was during that process that Zeitzer noticed Gleitsman’s Vassar class ring. They’ve been working together ever since. Zeitzer is an advisor to LumosTech, while Gleitsman manages LumosTech’s social media outreach and is a full-time scientist for Pacific Biosciences in Menlo Park.
“I’ve had a number of e-mail conversations with people who go on and on about how much they struggle with sleep in their daily lives, and not just with jet lag,” Gleitsman says. “People ask me all the time when it’s going to be available.”
LumosTech is in the process of developing 10 mask prototypes. Gleitsman says the final design could be available as early as next summer.
--Photos provided by subject. Top image ©Monika Wisniewska.