Many teens are chronically sleep deprived, resulting in poor school performance, impaired cognitive and memory functioning, and mood problems. This was one of the points made by internationally renowned sleep researcher Mary Carskadon in her December 2 lecture, “How Development of Sleep-Wake Regulation Affects Teen Sleep,” at WSU Spokane.

A professor of psychiatry at the Brown University School of Medicine and director of chronobiology and sleep research at the E.P. Bradley Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, Carskadon has done extensive research in the area of sleep/wake behavior in adolescents. Her pioneering work has challenged some commonly held beliefs, including the hypothesis that kids need less sleep as they mature.

Through her “sleep camp” studies—which examined 10- to 12-year olds over the course of four to six summers—she found that both younger and older teens need an average of 9 hours and 15 minutes of sleep each night. However, social pressures, psychological stressors, stimulation by modern technology, and other factors are contributing to the reality that most high-school age kids only get an average of 7 hours of sleep.

Carskadon explained that the chief difference between younger and older teens is in the timing, rather than the duration, of the sleep they need. She found that the biological clock of mature teens is set differently, causing them to get sleepy later at night and have difficulty waking up early in the morning. They also have a mid-afternoon “dip” that is not present in younger teens.

Challenging Franklin’s conventional wisdom that “early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” she argued that school districts’ early start times for mature teens are negatively affecting their performance. “Even if you love to learn, how can you love to learn when you’re being forced to do it at a time when you are at your absolute worst?” she asked.

In addition, she pointed to the dangers of teens driving themselves to school for early classes, showing statistics that attributed 50% of crashes that involved a driver falling asleep to 16- to 25-year olds.

Carskadon spoke at the invitation of WSU Spokane’s sleep and performance research center, headed by Dr. Gregory Belenky. In a state-of-the-art sleep laboratory, which is under construction and slated for completion in January, Belenky and his colleagues will conduct carefully controlled experiments to study sleep and performance issues in healthy adults. The lab will also serve as a base for staging field studies related to sleep and performance in the work environment.