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Tuesday, June 2, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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WSU Spokane lab studies dangers of sleep deprivation

Sleep researchers worldwide are poring over lab results to find why and when tired or fatigued workers hit the wall and start making mistakes. They’re trying to develop solid answers for why some people tire out later than others, and which jobs or professions are most sensitive to sleep disruption.

Another step in finding those clues is taking place at Spokane’s newest research lab, the Washington State University Critical Job Tasks Simulation Laboratory, inside the Bookie building on the Riverpoint campus downtown.

The new lab is connected with WSU Spokane’s Sleep and Performance Research Center, started in 2004 with key funding help from former Rep. George Nethercutt, who backed the idea of a medical research hub in Eastern Washington.

Many sleep labs across the country use work simulators that test people’s reaction time or ability to manage tasks when dealing with sleep debt. WSU’s sleep center may be the first anywhere that organizes the living-sleeping quarters under the same roof with advanced simulators for testing. The result, say the people running WSU’s lab, is a fully integrated and controlled environment that ensures test subjects stay inside the facility for extended periods.

During the past few months the first 28 sleep-test subjects were locked away in the lab’s living quarters. The group spent two weeks inside the controlled environment, sleeping a variety of schedules and taking tests to measure how changing sleep patterns affect their performance.

Four times a day in the recent driving tests, they walked from the sleep-residence area through a closed hallway to two driving simulators. They then spent 25 minutes behind the wheel of a 3-D simulator that tested driving reaction time.

At various points in the tests drivers will come across virtual highway hazards – a dog darting across the road or a car unexpectedly coming through an intersection.

The lab’s test operators could change the variables the drivers encountered. Weather could change, the roads could become icy or a flat tire can happen, all through a click of a mouse by the operator.

“We know a great deal about how sleep deprivation, shift work and long work hours affect people,” said Bryan Vila, WSU professor of criminal justice and director of WSU’s simulation lab for hazardous work. “But we don’t yet know many of the important details” about how sleep loss affects people differently, Vila said.

The first studies being done will examine driver attentiveness and ability to recover in moments of highway stress. That research is funded by the U.S. Transportation Department. One additional study will focus on how coach drivers handle disrupted sleep patterns.

“It may well be that 10 hours of driving in the middle of the day has to be viewed differently than driving in the middle of the night for the same 10 hours,” Vila said.

In the same building, Vila and fellow WSU research director Hans Van Dongen are installing another set of simulators that will study how police officers and military personnel do in stress conditions.

Each simulator costs more than $100,000 and includes a laser tracking system that can tell where a test subject points a gun at a 3-D screen. In addition, one of the simulators, inside a room where the 3-D images are projected, includes a rotating nozzle that fires nylon balls back at the test subject.

In effect, that test subject encounters highly charged street scenarios that will measure decision-making, reaction time, response accuracy and how effectively the police officer fired a weapon.

The first test subjects in that simulator will be cops, soldiers and adult subjects recruited by the lab, Vila said. Those tests will be funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which mostly funds research for the U.S. military.

Vila is at home with law enforcement protocols. He served more than 15 years with the Los Angeles police force before shifting to academic sleep research. He’s written the definitive book on sleep deprivation for police, “Tired Cops: The Importance of Managing Police Fatigue.”

Vila’s experience shows that police are more sleep-disrupted than truckers, airline pilots and train engineers – three often-used examples of shift workers. Shift workers tend to have frequently changing work and sleep schedules, and their performance often shows effects of fatigue over time.

Vila and his sleep lab colleagues intend to use the police tests to find evidence about the impact of fatigue on officer performance, safety and health. “This evidence will help police departments improve officer performance, manage risks, increase safety and improve officers’ lives,” he said.

Greg Belenky, the director of the WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center, said the simulation labs are a natural extension of the first phase of the sleep facility. The work being done is not just observing and testing people before and after sleep sessions; the simulators let researchers see where the points of fatigue and weariness take effect, he said.

Added Vila: “Having the simulators gives us a way to bridge from the controlled studies and the theoretical research to the noise of the real world.” Sleep loss, sleepy drivers and their impact on commerce are the subject of hundreds of studies across the world. Dozens of studies are continuing to examine highway safety and how sleep regulations affect the performance of long-haul drivers.

A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study, completed in 1995 and frequently cited by experts, found more than 1,500 people die in more than 100,000 crashes a year caused by drowsy drivers; the same study said more than 70,000 people are injured each year in fatigue-related crashes.

One of the leaders of American sleep research, Dr. William Dement, keeps track of the effort at the WSU Spokane center and thinks it will contribute helpful results.

Dement, the head of the Stanford University Sleep Research Center, was an instructor at Stanford when Belenky took classes there. Dement said Belenky, the WSU sleep research center director, has already done significant sleep studies from earlier research he headed at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

Dement, despite his 80 years, is a passionate fan of high-tech simulators as a way to field-test the actual job performance of test subjects. “You’ll find a lot of people who criticize simulators,” said Dement. “It all depends on the simulators. There are poor ones, and then you can go to NASA where they have a 747 simulator that does everything, including rattle and all the motion of being in a jet.”

Dement also warns about promising too much in a field still fraught with methodological challenges. “For one, we still cannot come up with a good definition of what ‘bad sleep’ is,” Dement said.

Even so, the need to refine testing tools and adapt technology for that purpose is still critically important, he said.

“This is still very important stuff. The medical schools vastly under-educate people about sleep disorders. And God knows the residency programs don’t deal with sleep problems,” he said.

Even though the simulators have just been installed, WSU’s lab has gained some national visibility. But another goal, said Belenky, Vila and Van Dongen, is helping Spokane’s business and education leaders understand its importance to the community.

“This is an enormously busy time for the Sleep and Performance Research Center,” Vila said.

“I don’t think that one person in 10,000 people in Spokane understands that, while most people are hunkering down, we’re actively building knowledge, attracting resources and bringing money into our community.”

Staff writer Tom Sowa can be reached at or at (509) 459-5492.

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