Rebooting the Brain: New Progress in the Treatment of Insomnia

Sixty-two-year-old Deborah Hamilton has struggled with insomnia her entire life.

"I find that I can go to bed at night dog tired, just so ready to sleep, and three hours later, at two in the morning, I'm up.  My day has begun.  And I can't do anything about it…. It got to be a very frustrating cycle.  And I didn't have any clue how to break it."

For years Hamilton tried various methods and drugs, everything from counting sheep to prescription pills, all in the quest of a good night's sleep. Nothing worked. Then she heard about James Findley, PhD, senior staff psychologist of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. She visited his clinic, and it proved to be a life changing experience.

Using Findley's program, Hamilton was able to modify her bedtime and daily behavior to create a healthier sleep environment.  Before seeing Dr. Finley,  "I thought that the best thing to do would be to try to stay in bed and stay flat and stay quiet," Hamilton told ABC News. " So I'd read a book, I'd read magazines, I kept things by the nightstand, hoping that I would fall back to sleep."

She has since learned better. Now, "the bed is only for sleeping.  Don't have breakfast there.  Don't read the newspaper there.  There are just a few things the bed's allowed for. "

These new rules, combined with therapy designed to address the underlying issues behind Hamilton's insomnia, have allowed Hamilton to get the good night's sleep that was eluding her. "When I go into bed and hit that pillow, I'm down, I'm gone.  It's great, " she said

Dr. Finley is not the only scientist seeking to address the problem. In Australia, Dr. Leon Lack, professor of psychology at Flinders University, in Adelaide, is pursuing a more aggressive treatment.

According to Dr. Lack, "chronic insomniacs generally do not feel very sleepy. They feel exhausted, they feel fatigued, but not particularly sleepy." He seeks to change that through a 24-hour sleep deprivation program in which participants are woken up after roughly five minutes of sleep, keeping them from entering a deep sleep state and building up sleep pressure.

The problem, as Dr. Lack sees it, is in the conditioning of the brain. He told ABC News, "When chronic insomniacs go to bed, they feel they have an alerting response which counteracts their normal biological sleepiness. What this new therapy does is reverse that inappropriate learning of the brain to become alerted and anxious."

By severely depriving the participants of sleep overall but allowing them to go to sleep for brief intervals, he retrains the insomniacs' brains to go to sleep right away when allowed to, an effect that seems to carry over in the long run. The participants in the study reported that the average time it took them to fall asleep at night decreased by a half, from one hour to half an hour.

Dr. Lack is optimistic, stating, "We think that the immediate benefits of the therapy are at least as good as the benefits that people tend to experience with hypnotic drugs."