Resetting Travelers’ Circadian Clocks

CMU researchers collaborate on DARPA’s multidisciplinary project to regulate sleep/wake cycles

The body’s circadian rhythms are sophisticated cycles that regulate essential functions that range from sleeping and waking to digestion and hormone production. When the brain’s master clock is disrupted — as with travel — physiological and mental processes bear the burden, causing a person to experience insomnia, gastrointestinal issues, impaired cognitive function and even a weakened immune response. A new research collaboration aims to address this. 

Carnegie Mellon University researchers are part of a team working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a system for regulating the body’s circadian clock. Such a system will support military personnel who frequently travel across multiple time zones and shift workers including first responders, who vacillate between overnight and daytime shifts.

“Carnegie Mellon brings expertise in bioelectrical platform design and fabrication, along with rich experience in the development and implementation of neurotechnologies,” said Tzahi Cohen-Karni, associate professor of biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering. “We are excited to collaborate with Northwestern and Rice Universities, and leverage our collective strengths to support this unique project.”

Cohen-Karni will head Carnegie Mellon’s team of experts, including: Douglas Weber, professor of mechanical engineering; Carl Olson, professor of cognitive neuroscience; Matt Smith, associate professor of biomedical engineering; and Darcy Griffin, special faculty researcher in the university’s Neuroscience Institute. (Weber, Olson, and Smith also hold faculty appointments in the Neuroscience Institute.)

Called NTRAIN (Normalizing Timing of Rhythms Across Internal Networks of Circadian Clocks), the project is a part the Advanced Acclimation and Protection Tool for Environmental Readiness (ADAPTER) program. Beyond controlling circadian rhythms, the researchers believe this technology could be modified for other types of therapies offering precise timing and dosing for potentially treating pain and disease. The DARPA program also will help researchers better understand sleep/wake cycles, in general.

Northwestern University is leading the collaboration with additional researchers from Rice University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Utah, and Blackrock Microsystems.  

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