Washington University professor Paul Shaw is cracking the mysteries of sleep

Washington University professor Paul Shaw is cracking the mysteries of sleep

Paul Shaw sleeps eight hours a night, though he allows himself an extra 45 minutes to drift off. He goes to bed and gets up at the same time every day. He's been doing this for so many years, he no longer needs an alarm clock. He keeps one by the bed anyway, but makes sure it faces the wall so he can't psyche himself out by calculating how much sleep he's losing. At night, his bedroom stays completely dark, and he's trained his cat not to disturb him. He doesn't drink any caffeine after noon.

If you are one of the world's preeminent sleep researchers, as Shaw is, and if you identify yourself as a sleep evangelist, as Shaw does, these are the sort of things people want to know about you. When Shaw goes to a party and doesn't feel like being cornered for several hours discussing other guests' sleep issues, he tells people he's a neuroscientist. Sometimes, just to totally kill any interest, he adds that he works with fruit flies, known in biological circles as Drosophila melanogaster.

Shaw is 48, slight and wiry, with spiky graying hair. Because he gets the proper amount of sleep, and because he keeps a coffeemaker within easy reach of his desk at Washington University, where he's an associate professor of neurobiology, he has plenty of energy, which generally takes the form of talking nonstop at high speed and engaging in rapid-fire argument with anyone who disagrees with him.

Someday, if Shaw gets his way, cops and doctors will be able to determine sleepiness through a simple spit test.
Jennifer Silverberg
Someday, if Shaw gets his way, cops and doctors will be able to determine sleepiness through a simple spit test.
Shaw checks up on his fruit flies in the lab's sleep room.
Jennifer Silverberg
Shaw checks up on his fruit flies in the lab's sleep room.

Because he works with fruit flies and regularly uses phrases like "fly husbandry," he's developed a sense of humor about his work. He's also learned to defend himself against teasing from his college buddies. He refuses to take academic hierarchies seriously and always keeps his door open. He once cracked himself up writing a grant proposal arguing that his flies were actually models for killer whales. "It did not go over well," he reports. "I wanted to take a bad idea and run with it."

But when it comes to the nation's sleep-deprivation epidemic, Shaw starts raving like a televangelist. It's hard to argue with him. Most people don't get enough sleep. They're tired. They're cranky. They talk wistfully of naps.

For Shaw, sleep deprivation is a national crisis. Few things get him as worked up as reciting statistics from a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: 62 percent of drivers have reported driving while sleepy, and 27 percent say they have actually fallen asleep at the wheel, which led to 100,000 crashes, 1,500 deaths and $12.5 billion in losses in the year 2000 alone. "And those estimates are low!" Shaw exclaims. "People can't resist the impulse to sleep. It's stronger than the sex drive — unless you're a politician. Driving while sleepy is as bad as driving under the influence of alcohol."

Shaw and his fruit flies are going to change all that. Someday, if Shaw gets his way, there will be ways to determine if a person is sleep deprived. Doctors can test their patients during their annual checkups and prescribe improved sleep hygiene along with better diet and exercise. Shaw's also working on a roadside test like a Breathalyzer that cops can administer to people they've pulled over for driving erratically. Someday he hopes drowsy driving will be as stigmatized as drunk driving.

The key lies in the fruit flies. In Shaw's lab, they're not pests. Instead, they're very tiny models for what goes on inside the human body during sleep. Shaw discovered that both flies and humans produce a protein called amylase. They produce more of it when they're sleepy. In humans, amylase is found in saliva. In Shaw's ideal world, any driver could be outed as sleepy by spitting into a cup. Or by chewing a stick of gum that would change color in the presence of the protein.

Five years ago, when Shaw first published his research about the sleepiness test, the news spread to The Tonight Show where, during an opening monologue, Jay Leno wondered aloud why you can't check to see if someone is asleep by watching their eyelids close.

"It's a valid question," Shaw admits. But he's deadly serious about getting sleepy drivers off the roads — and shaming people into practicing good sleep habits. "You shouldn't put your life in jeopardy. We should hold people accountable with a biomarker. It's that simple."

In order to teach people how to sleep better, of course, it's necessary to find out why they fall asleep in the first place. And that remains one of the greatest, and most fascinating, mysteries of all.

"It's so important," Shaw muses. "We spend a third of our lives doing it. You never feel so bad as you do after a night of sleep loss, and never as good as you do after you get a good night's sleep."

Shaw's colleagues consider him one of the most knowledgeable and astute detectives on the case.

"Paul is poised to crack the problem in function that has eluded us for a long time," says Marcos Frank, who was a post-doctoral fellow with Shaw in San Diego and now runs his own sleep lab at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's a cool question. How come nobody has figured it out?"

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