An Implant to Control the Sleep – Wake Cycle

Written by Lydia Kariuki

Sleep technology has come a long way; from simple gadgets to count your heartbeat to fancy ones that monitor your brain activity during sleep. Now it appears that even the sleep-wake cycle can be controlled with a simple tech gadget in the form of an implant.

Getting quality sleep is essential for normal development. It is during sleep that the brain forms pathways that enhance learning and memory formation. Sleep also plays “housekeeping” roles; toxins are removed from the body during sleep.

Without quality sleep, a person is more at risk of chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, depression, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.

The sleep-wake cycle is an interplay between a period of being awake (usually 16 hours) and a period of being asleep (usually 8 hours). When this interplay is upset, the body goes out of rhythm and this may affect how it functions.

A team of researchers from Northwestern University in partnership with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) are in the process of developing a body implant that can manipulate the body’s circadian rhythm. This device will be able to half the time that it takes to recover from arousal during the sleep cycle.

This research program will be divided into phases. During the first phase, the researchers will develop the implant which will be validated during the second phase of the project. After successful completion of the two phases, a clinical trial will be conducted to test the sleep implant on humans. The project should span for a period of about 4 and a half years and should incur a cost of about $33 million.

If successful, this implant which has been nicknamed the living pharmacy, will be instrumental for those who work in shifts. For example, military personnel working across different time zones can use this implant to adjust their sleep wake cycle. The same goes for international airline employees and healthcare personnel working round the clock.

Synthetic biologists from Rice University will handle the cellular engineering efforts while the Blackrock Microsystems will handle the bioelectronics.

The team is working to develop similar peptides that the body releases to regulate sleep from engineered cells. Consequently, the implant will be able to release these peptides into the bloodstream when the cells are exposed to light.

How long will the implant last?


According to the researchers, this implant will not need a refill. This depends on how long the researchers would want it to last, which could be forever. No wonder this implant has earned the nickname “the living pharmacy.”


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Lydia Kariuki

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