Savvy about sleep

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August 30, 2010
By: Jake Weyer
Jake Weyer
There’s little question that folks today are hooked on finding ways to stay awake. The massive collection of energy drinks on display in a room at the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center is a testament to that.

Voluntary sleep deprivation, not surprisingly, is the most common cause of drowsiness during the day. Neurologist Mark Mahowald, director of the center, sees it all the time.

“People always ask, ‘well how do you know if you’re sleep deprived?’ Our first question is, ‘do you use an alarm clock to wake up in the morning?’ If you use an alarm clock, you are by definition sleep deprived because if your brain had collected as much sleep as it needed, you would have awakened before the alarm went off,” he said. “So all of us are voluntarily sleep deprived.”

Mahowald was one of the center’s founders in the 1970s, back when sleep science was in its infancy. He’s also recognized as a pioneer in the study of sleep behavioral disorders such as sleep walking, which occur during deep sleep, known as REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

That work has helped gain the center national attention, along with its diagnosis, treatment and research of other disorders ranging from sleep apnea to insomnia. The center also makes training a top priority, keeping a rotation of medical students on-hand at all times.  

Staff conduct sleep studies day and night in monitored rooms that will naturally put an average adult to sleep in about 15 minutes, Mahowald said. The center treats roughly 2,000 patients a year, but he said it should see more.  

“Our society has equated sleepiness with laziness, depression, slothfulness, some other effect of character,” he said. “People who are too sleepy during the day are really afraid to mention it for that reason.”

The center’s most recent claim to fame is its work in forensic  investigation, led by Dr. Michel Cramer Bornemann, who gets calls from law enforcement agencies and attorneys all over the U.S. for assistance in criminal cases. So far he’s been involved in more than 200 of them, offering his expert opinion on whether crimes were committed while the suspect was asleep.  

“I don’t provide beyond-reasonable-doubt opinions,” he said. “I provide a scientific opinion about any particular behavior. What I believe the goal of the medical expert is to actually educate the court system about particular behaviors associated with allegations.”

Most referrals are assault cases. One recent case in Fargo, for example, involved the sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl. The defendant, a documented sleepwalker, claimed he must have committed the crime while asleep. Bornemann suggested otherwise, noting that sexual assaults can happen during sleep — often the result of a disorder called sexomnia — but only when two people are within close proximity of each other, not in separate rooms as was the case for the defendant.

The jury deliberated in a half-hour and found the man guilty.  

Bornemann, the one who amassed the center’s energy-drink collection, said he could make forensic investigation a fulltime job, but he chooses not to.

“I only take a limited number of cases each quarter because I recognize that a big part of what I do here is still to provide a clinical service to our community here in the Twin Cities,” he said. “And that’s something I don’t want to lose contact with.”