We all feel better after a good night’s sleep, but sleep disturbances are not uncommon, especially as we age. For various reasons — mental stress, physical aches and pains, medical conditions, medications and more — a healthy stretch of sleep can be hard to come by.

At the University of Maine in Orono, graduate student Katrina Daigle is studying sleep patterns in a group of older Mainers using an innovative, wireless home technology, developed at UMaine, that could someday take the place of the traditional, hard-wired sleep study in a clinical setting. The technology used in the patented device, known as the SleepMove, has been used to analyze sleep patterns in newborns with opiate dependency, military servicemembers with PTSD and athletes with traumatic brain injury.

“It’s just a waterproof type of sheet with pressure sensors in it,” Daigle said. “During the night, it picks up all the different kinds of movements [the sleeper] makes, including breathing.” The device has been tested against other technologies that provide sleep-quality data and delivers a comparable amount and quality of information, she said.

For this study, the special sheet is placed under the regular bedding in the patient’s home, like a mattress pad. As sensors in the pad pick up the sleeper’s subtle movements and respirations, electronic information is wirelessly transmitted via the internet to receivers at UMaine, where it can be analyzed to determine the duration and quality of sleep.

The particular focus of Daigle’s study is the timing of small, spontaneous movements that occur automatically throughout the night. During healthy sleep cycles, these small adjustments in position take place every few minutes without the sleeper waking. They are thought to briefly increase the rate of breathing and deliver a small but important charge of oxygen to the sleeping brain.

When sleep patterns are disrupted, this delicate mechanism, known as the movement-respiration coupling system, gets derailed. Daigle and her research partners are trying to determine if, in people who already are experiencing a decline in their cognitive function, there is a correlation between the dampening of the coupling system and a more rapid progression to dementia.

Participants in the research project have previously been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. Before the two-night sleep study, they will undergo an evaluation of their cognitive functions, including memory recall, image identification, problem solving and other tasks. The sleep study itself takes place in their own familiar bed at home. A follow-up evaluation six months later — minus the sleep study — will help Daigle determine if there is a correlation between a suppressed movement-respiration coupling system and rapid changes in cognition. About 20 people are enrolled in the study.

Professor Marie Hayes of the UMaine psychology department is a faculty advisor to the project. Studies have determined that brain functions such as memory consolidation and problem solving are dependent on “solid, good sleep,” Hayes said. In addition, healthy sleep is thought to be critical to the the removal of waste from cells, including materials that may otherwise build up in brain tissue and are associated with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

“We propose that [the movement-respiration coupling system] is very protective of cognitive function and sensitive to sleep disruption,” she said. Confirmation of this hypothesis could help determine the course of future research and the development of pharmaceutical and technological advances to slow the onset of dementia.

Ali Abedi, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UMaine, helped develop the SleepMove technology in his lab. It has demonstrated its value in studying other populations that suffer from sleep disturbances, he said, and is being adapted for use in the zero-gravity environment of NASA’s space exploration projects.

Now, with support from the UMaine Aging Initiative, established in 2013 to help adapt existing research to the needs of an aging population, it is providing information that could help detect, delay or even prevent the onset of dementia.

The technology will continue to be refined and could someday play a larger role in diagnosing sleep problems, Abati said, but its great advantage over other approaches is its user-friendly low profile and simplicity of use.

“There are no wires,” he said. “It’s just a sheet you put on your bed.”

Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.