Military Seeking Ways to Skip Sleep

ByABC News
December 16, 2002, 1:28 PM

Dec. 18 -- 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.