Military Seeking Ways to Skip Sleep

It was finals week at the University of Illinois when biology major Peggy Gatsinos got a clear sign she was running short on sleep.

After breakfast, she explains, "I went to put the things away and I put the cereal in the refrigerator and the milk in the cabinet."

For reasons that scientists don't yet understand, sleep is critical for normal functioning of the human brain. If we skimp on it, we start making mistakes — from putting cereal in the refrigerator to falling asleep at the wheel.

Soldiers that Never Stop

Lack of sleep has been blamed for a number of infamous mishaps from the Chernobyl meltdown to the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

It's a problem that the military takes a keen interest in, since whether or not troops get their zzz's can determine the outcome of a battle. By devising superhuman ways of staying awake for up to seven straight days and nights, military officials hope to lend U.S. soldiers a strategic edge in future conflicts.

"Eliminating the need for sleep during an operation … will create a fundamental change in war fighting and force employment," says a recent statement by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

To strive toward creating the no-sleep soldier, DARPA has funded a multi-tiered program from tinkering with a soldier's brain using magnetic resonance to analyzing the neural circuits of birds that stay awake for days during migration. The hope is to stump the body's need for sleep — at least temporarily.

"This program is really out of the box," says John Carney, director of DARPA's Continuous Assisted Performance program. "We want to look at capabilities in nature and leverage it so we can apply it in ways that no one thought possible."

No-Sleep Masters: Dolphins and Sparrows

One of the first places scientists are looking for answers is in other species.

Dolphins, for example, live in water and need to stay awake at all hours in order to breathe. To do this, it's believed the animals keep parts of their brain awake while other parts sleep. This allows them to stay alert and get to the surface regularly to breathe.

The Navy's Marine Mammals Program, set up primarily to train dolphins and sea lions to do underwater searches, is conducting PET (positron emission tomography) scans on the animals to try to learn more about their unusual ability. It's also doing behavioral studies on orca whales since in the first three to four weeks after birth, newborn orcas and their mothers appear to stay completely active.

"The first stage is to confirm these abilities exist," says Carney. "Then maybe we can begin applying it to humans."

Niels Rattenborg, meanwhile, is tapping the brains of tiny birds to find answers.

Even when kept in a cage, white crown sparrows don't sleep during the time they would normally be winging thousands of miles in their biannual migration from Alaska to California and back again.

"This bird will spontaneously start to hop around its cage when it would be migrating," says Rattenborg. "At the most during these periods they occasionally get drowsy, but they never get any real sleep."

Rattenborg, under the guidance of Ruth Benca, both of the University of Wisconsin, are attaching small sensors to the sparrows' brains to monitor their brain activity during the five to seven days and nights the birds stay awake. They're also testing the birds' cognitive abilities during the sleepless stints.

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