Sleep scientist expands WSU’s sleep research

Hans Van Dongen, an internationally recognized scientist who focuses on the areas of sleep and cognitive performance, recently joined WSU Spokane as associate research professor and assistant director of the university’s new Sleep and Performance Research Center.

The Sleep and Performance Research Center includes a state-of-the-art sleep research laboratory that is currently under construction at the Riverpoint campus in Spokane. Housed in the South Campus Facility, the lab is slated for completion by the end of this year. In addition to serving as a base for staging field studies related to sleep and performance, the lab will be one of only a handful in the world that can accommodate carefully controlled experiments to study the effects of sleep and sleep loss on human cognitive functioning. Van Dongen will be managing these experiments, which address important, unresolved questions, such as why sleep is so important for daytime alertness and productivity.

Formerly a research associate professor of sleep and chronobiology at the University of Pennsylvania, Van Dongen has considerable experience conducting laboratory research and a track record of experimental and theoretical contributions to sleep research. He headed studies funded by a number of government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, and NASA.

Van Dongen’s first studies at WSU Spokane-which are being funded by NIH and the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research-build on an observation made in earlier studies that the degradation of performance due to sleep loss is much different from one individual to the next.

“I aim to find out why the cognitive response to sleep loss can be so different among people and how this response can be predicted for a given individual,” said Van Dongen, adding that “this work will have important implications for everyone who occasionally or routinely loses sleep, whether it’s due to occupational demands, medical condition, or life style.”

The groundwork for WSU Spokane’s sleep and performance research initiative was laid by the Spokane Alliance for Medical Research (SAMR), which helped secure the $4.5 million congressional funding to support the staffing, construction, and equipment of the laboratory. WSU is a member of the SAMR, an alliance of public and private colleges and universities, health care providers and institutions, and manufacturing, research, and economic development organizations in Spokane and the Inland Northwest. The alliance works to build significant competitive federal funding and lead research designed to promote human health and economic benefits for the region.

The SAMR recruited Gregory Belenky, M.D.-who previously served as director of the Division of Neuroscience at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research-to direct the sleep and performance research at WSU Spokane. Dr. Belenky is excited about the contributions Van Dongen will be making.

“Hans Van Dongen is a superb scientist. He is a world leader in the scientific study of sleep and human performance. I am positive that Hans will advance our understanding of individual differences in response to sleep deprivation and sleep restriction and, through mathematical modeling, enable the systematic management of sleep to sustain performance,” Dr. Belenky said.

Van Dongen holds a master’s degree in Astrophysics and a doctorate in Psychophysiology from the University of Leiden, the Netherlands.

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