Tuesday, March 07, 2006

New Scientist Features - Get ready for 24-hour living

New Scientist Features - Get ready for 24-hour living: "'The more we understand about the body's 24-hour clock the more we will be able to override it,' says Russell Foster, a circadian biologist at Imperial College London. 'In 10 to 20 years we'll be able to pharmacologically turn sleep off. Mimicking sleep will take longer, but I can see it happening.' Foster envisages a world where it's possible, or even routine, for people to be active for 22 hours a day and sleep for two. It is not a world that everyone likes the sound of. 'I think that would be the most hideous thing to happen to society,' says Neil Stanley, head of sleep research at the Human Psychopharmacology Research Unit in the University of Surrey, UK. But most sleep researchers agree that it is inevitable.

If that sounds unlikely, think about what is already here. Modafinil has made it possible to have 48 hours of continuous wakefulness with few, if any, ill effects. New classes of sleeping pills are on the horizon that promise to deliver sleep that is deeper and more refreshing than the real thing. Further down the line are even more radical interventions - wakefulness promoters that can safely abolish sleep for several days at a stretch, and sleeping pills that deliver what feels like 8 hours of sleep in half the time. Nor is it all about drugs: one research team even talks about developing a wearable electrical device that can wake your brain up at the flick of a switch.

To some degree, we are already adept at controlling sleep. Most people in full-time work deprive themselves of sleep during the week, deliberately or otherwise, and catch up at the weekend. We often augment our sleep-suppressing powers with caffeine, nicotine or illegal stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines. We are also highly dependent on substances that help us sleep. According to some estimates, 75 per cent of adults suffer at least one symptom of a sleep problem a few nights a week or more. In 1"