Bioethics Blogs

Explaining the Traveler’s First-Night Sleep Problem

Stock photo/Wavebreakmedia Ltd

This past weekend, I attended a scientific meeting in New York. As often seems to happen to me in a hotel, I tossed and turned and woke up feeling not very rested. The second night I did a bit better. Why is this? Using advanced neuroimaging techniques to study volunteers in a sleep lab, NIH-funded researchers have come up with a biological explanation for this phenomenon, known as “the first-night effect.”

As it turns out, the first night when a person goes to sleep in a new place, a portion of the left hemisphere of his or her brain remains unusually active, apparently to stay alert for any signs of danger. The new findings not only provide important insights into the function of the human brain, they also suggest methods to prevent the first-night effect and thereby help travelers like me in our ongoing quest to get a good night’s sleep.

The study, presented in a recent issue of the journal Current Biology, was led by Yuka Sasaki at Brown University, Providence, RI [1]. In the first experiment, Sasaki and colleagues recruited 11 young and healthy people with normal sleep habits to monitor slow-wave brain activity, a characteristic that reflects the depth of sleep. For three days before the start of the study, participants stuck to their usual sleep schedules, avoiding alcohol and any unusual activity.

The researchers monitored each participant’s brain activity for up to three hours on the first and second nights in the sleep lab on two separate occasions.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.