Sleep Matters

Over one-third of all Australians wish they got more sleep.


NeuRA’s Professor Danny Eckert appeared on ABC’s Catalyst as part of the program’s exploration of the latest science behind sleep.


Comedian Lawrence Leung met with some of Australia’s top sleep scientists to ask: What is sleep for? When should I go to bed? What happens if I don’t sleep? And, how can I sleep better?


Prof Eckert spoke about recent tests using electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brain activity during a typical sleep cycle. Research has found that we cycle through 4 main stages of brain activity during sleep, that occur approximately every 90 minutes. Prof Eckert discussed the unique EEG signature of these stages and what this tells us about brain activity.


In early stage 1, the brain remains very active. This is when we are drifting off to sleep. Certain areas of the brain, like the thalamus, will go to sleep before others. This may explain the half-awake/half-asleep feeling many people experience in this stage of sleep.


Stage 2 is the predominant phase of sleep with 60% of our sleep spent in this stage. Our heart rate slows down, and our body temperature drops. The EEG shows that even during this stage of deeper sleep the brain remains dynamic and active.
Stage 3 is the deepest stage of sleep when the brain waves slow down and synchronise. Certain hormones, such as growth hormone are only released during this stage of sleep, and it’s much harder to wake people up during stage 3 sleep.


The final stage is the Rapid Eye Movement or REM stage. In this period your breathing and heart rate speed up as dream content is experienced by the brain.  Interestingly, the brain activity during this stage looks almost the same as if you were awake.


“Four out of ten Australians are getting inadequate sleep. We know this from a large report that was recently released from the Sleep Health Foundation,” said Professor Eckert.

“Inadequate sleep is costing the Australian economy $66 billion a year, so it really is a big problem in our society.”


NeuRA’s Dr Hanna Hensen also spoke as part of Catalyst’s live Q&A on sleep after the program.


“Sleep is one of the three pillars of health alongside exercise and diet,“ said Dr Hensen.

“Sometimes people forget how important sleep actually is, so the first step is to prioritise sleep.”


The full episode of Catalyst can be watched on ABC iView here