Sleep masks that measure and manage your sleep

smart eyeshades

Sleep masks have been used over many years to help with sleep by blocking out light that may interfere with sleep.  New technologies now allow smart sleep masks to incorporate sensors that can measure sleep via electroencephalography (EEG) and feed that data directly to a smartphone app.  They may also contain lights that can shine in your eyes at set times to manipulate your circadian rhythm and adjust sleep timing for jet lag, shift work or insomnia. But do smart sleep masks make a difference to sleep and is there any research supporting their use?

Light and its impact on sleep

There are decades of research now showing that light has a significant impact on the sleep/wake pattern as well as a number of other body functions.  Blue wavelength light after sundown in the evening delays the onset of melatonin production and sleep.  Whereas light exposure in the morning can help shut off melatonin production, help us wake feeling less tired and boost morning energy levels. Light therapy delivered using a range of devices such as desktop lamps or devices with LED lights close to the eyes have been used over a number of years to help adjust the body clock to manipulate sleep cycles.

Although light therapy using continuous light exposure has been used over a number of years, using light even at the correct time only shifts the human body clock a modest amount, at most 4 hours per 24 hours and more often, only 2 hours per 24 hours.  This means that people can take some days to get over jet lag if travelling multiple time zones and take a significant amount of time to adjust to rotation between day and night shifts.  However, recent research by Jamie Zeitzer from Stanford University suggests that flashing lights with very short length light impulses can have a greater effect on shifting the body clock than continuous light.  Jamie showed that light pulses seven seconds apart produced a two-hour phase delay compared to a 35 minute phase delay with 60 minutes of continuous light.  Each flash was only 2 milliseconds in length, so the total amount of light exposure was less than 1 second in total but gave four times the clock shifting effect of one hour of continuous light.

How can this research be used with smart sleep masks?

Portable technologies now allow devices such as headbands (Sleep Profiler) or sleep masks (Neuroon) to measure brainwave activity (electroencephalography / EEG) during sleep and communicate this information to other devices for analysis and storage via wireless technologies such as Bluetooth.  Once a device or app is able to determine someone’s sleep state and sleep pattern by measuring EEG, algorithms can then be used to determine when light exposure would be optimal to shift their body clock to the desired time, or optimise alertness.

neuroonThis is the principle behind devices such as the Neuroon device.  This is a device that is being sold commercially for US $299 (Neuroon.com).  The Neuroon device incorporates sensors that measure EEG and via a smartphone app where you program your desired awakening time, uses LED lights that come on prior to awakening to suppress melatonin and aim to make it easier for you to awaken with less sleep inertia.  The light component of the Neuroon device can also be programmed to help adjust for jet lag or used during the day for a burst of energy.

Does the Neuroon device work?

The basic science behind managing light exposure to optimise sleep and shift circadian rhythms is very robust.  However, whilst the basic science is sound, it can be hard to implement and develop a way of delivering light together with algorithms that determine when light should be used that work well in the real world. So far there hasn’t been any research published showing smart sleep masks are effective.

Whilst the Neuroon device has all the right ingredients, having used the device over the past few weeks, I don’t think the implementation is particularly elegant, nor sophisticated.  So it doesn’t deliver on a number of its promises.  I found the device worked well for short periods such as during a nap but when used for longer periods, such as being worn continuously throughout the night, the openings through which lights shine on the eyelids had shifted away from the eyes and were less effective when they were needed just before awakening. The Neuroon device is also quite large which, whilst that is good for filtering out light, can get quite hot underneath and uncomfortable during sleep.

I also found the recommendations for light exposure to help adjust for jet lag were not practical in the real world.  I simulated a trip from Melbourne to New York and the app instructed me to have six hours of light exposure throughout most of the night seven days before travelling. Whilst that is what would be optimal to adjust the body clock for travel, it would have meant I had to stay awake throughout the night for the entire week before travelling, something that is just not practical.

nap timeOther companies have smart sleep masks under development which hopefully will build on the Neuroon device and improve the implementation.  LumosTech is a company that is working with Jamie Zeitzer to develop a smart sleep masks to help with jet lag and shift work and hope to have a commercial product available by 2017. The Naptime device is also planning to launch in 2017 with a crowd funding campaign and is promoting itself as the first sleep mask with EEG measuring technology.

Smart sleep masks – not quite there in 2016

Although the pieces of technology and research are there, I do not think there is currently a smart sleep mask that really delivers on the promise of measuring sleep and using that information to direct light to manipulate sleep.  However, smart sleep masks are likely to become increasingly available and refined over the next few years as people learn from early models and progressively improve devices so that they work more effectively.

Whilst I was too embarrassed to wear the Neuroon on a recent flight, it may be that in a couple of years, smart sleep masks such as later versions of the Neuroon device or devices from LumosTech may be the norm on long-haul plane flights.

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