The US military is experimenting with a wearable that can help boost sleep's brain-restoring powers

·3-min read
The US Army hopes to come up with a headset device that helps a soldier's brain rid itself of debris while they sleep.

In their quest to create a generation of super-soldiers, the US military is embarking on a mysterious 'sleeping cap' project to improve their rest. The device might be able to optimize the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, which clears waste as it circulates through our brains while we sleep.

Literal brainwashing -- but the good kind! The US Department of Defense has asked researchers from various American universities to develop a "sleeping cap" to improve the sleep of soldiers. This cap will analyze the flow of cerebrospinal fluid which has the function of draining the brain of waste during sleep. This fluid also helps with shock absorption and cushioning sudden movements. In its first year, the research team, composed of Engineers at Rice University's NeuroEngineering Initiative in association with the Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering (IBB) and physicians at Houston Methodist Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine, was awarded a $2.8 million grant. It hopes to receive more each year from the US Army to accomplish its objective.

The first objective for the research team is to be able to measure and then modulate the flow of cerebrospinal fluid during waste elimination. All this without altering the brain's skills or activity. As for the material component, the equipment must be easily transportable. So the researchers opted for a lightweight cap that would work in any situation. "Since an MRI can't be easily transported, the Department of Defense asked if we can design a small, portable cap that can measure and modulate the brain health of warfighters during sleep to enhance their performance," explained Paul Cherukuri, executive director of the IBB.

For many years, the fatigue of soldiers has been a key issue. During WWII, certain drugs were used to help soldiers stay awake and feel less tired, such as benzedrine and pervitin. Much has evolved since then regarding protocols used with soldiers, but allowing them to reduce fatigue through sleep is a much healthier option.

Several technologies under study

For the American army, the answer could be found through the observation and analysis of the glymphatic system (not to be confused with lymphatic). This system pumps cerebral spinal fluid during sleep to remove waste and dysfunctional proteins. It has only been since 2012 that the existence of this evacuation system has been described through studies in mice. This project could also allow for the study and development of treatments for several brain diseases in a faster, real-time manner. For this observation phase, the team plans to test several techniques such as ultrasound brain stimulation or electromagnetic signalling.

This new data will then be combined and analyzed using machine learning software being developed at Rice University. Ultimately the researchers hope to get a real-time picture of how the brain cleans itself.

"Technologies that facilitate clearing wastes and preventing their deposition in the brain are relevant to patients with sleep disorders," points out Dr. Fidaa Shaib, "especially those at risk for such neurodegenerative diseases as Alzheimer's."

Researchers hope to deliver preliminary results from their work within a year.

Axel Barre

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