Debunking the “Mystery” of Sleep.

Debunking the “Mystery” of Sleep.

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By: Melissa Galati

Spotlight on Dr. Richard Horner – Debunking the “Mystery” of Sleep.

Dr. Richard Horner, PhD
Professor, Department of Medicine, and Physiology, University of Toronto
Canada Research Chair in Sleep and Respiratory Neurobiology
Member, Institute of Medical Science, University of Toronto

When I sat down with Dr. Richard Horner, I was expecting to gain some much-needed advice on a better night’s sleep. While much of our conversation revolved around his research—Dr. Horner is a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair and leading scientist in sleep physiology—we also discussed the importance of knowledge translation in science, and common hurdles faced by graduate students.

Dr. Horner obtained his Bachelor’s degree in physiology at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. Following his passion for physiology, he accepted a PhD position at the University of London in one of the United Kingdom’s first sleep laboratories. In this setting, Dr. Horner not only gained research training, but also obtained many years of clinical experience in sleep physiology. He went on to complete two post-doctoral fellowships; first, at the University of Toronto (U of T) and then at the University of Pennsylvania, where he engaged in basic neuroscience research—the basis of his work today. He then returned to U of T to accept a Faculty position in the Department of Medicine with an appointment in the Institute of Medical Science (IMS) and cross-appointment in the Department of Physiology.

Having been a member of IMS for almost two decades, I wondered how Dr. Horner’s research had changed over the course of his career. He offered some advice to those striving for a career in academia. “The first thing you have to do when you start a faculty career is focus… You commit to what you can do and try to publish papers.” He concedes that the high competition and uncertainty that comes with research can sometimes stifle innovation. Much of Dr. Horner’s early research focused on more specific aspects of sleep and breathing, but with greater long-term support, he was able to take more risks and diversify his research. He now asks more fundamental questions regarding the generation of sleep, the mechanisms of anaesthesia, and the effects of sedating drugs and painkillers on brain and respiratory function. “[Research] is like investments. If your portfolio is too focused, you’re vulnerable if something ever goes wrong. But if it’s too diverse, you’re not really going to gain anything. It’s a question of keeping your eye on what you perceive to be important and having the courage to invest your funds in the people and infrastructure to get it done.”

As I asked Dr. Horner what he believed to be his most significant scientific contribution, his wry smile suggested I might be asking the wrong question. “I guess the easy answer is that when we started, there was a lot of clinical observation about breathing that becomes impaired during sleep. But there was no science that could explain what was going on in the brain that causes the change in physiology that ultimately predisposes to the problem… we have provided that knowledge.” Dr. Horner adds that much of his efforts are now also focused on knowledge translation. “In reality, all the work that we do is funded by the people surrounding us. I think it’s a duty to translate that knowledge in some way.” In fact, Dr. Horner has written a book on the evolution of sleep entitled, The Universal Pastime: Sleep and Rest Explained. “[My] motivation for the book was that I got so tired of hearing that sleep is a mystery. It’s nonsense to keep perpetuating this myth… We’re in a cloud of so much information…sometimes the hardest thing to do is to step back, look at the information, and [say] “it’s not that complicated.” Dr. Horner points out that, in research, while we are always striving to push the boundaries of knowledge, consolidating the information to make it accessible often takes more time than we are prepared to invest.

Dr. Horner’s book is primarily focused on the principles of evolution and answers questions such as “how is life organized?” and “why would twenty-four hours of circadian biology emerge?” The book looks at separating the real purpose of sleep from those activities that merely occur during sleep; for example, activities, such as growth and repair, are often cited as reasons for why sleep is important, but, in reality, sleep exists for the simple reason that it makes us better at being awake. We know that our genes are a way for biology to prime an organism to be fit in its environment, however, as we interact with the environment, the connectivity of the brain changes. This plasticity enables the brain to better interact with the environment. “That’s an incredibly powerful thing,” remarks Dr. Horner. “The only thing you need is for natural selection to select for the ability of the brain to change. And by doing so, you have an organism that can adapt…it can discover the things that help it survive…Sleep enables that process [of restructuring]. This is why organisms all over the planet have found this solution for life—because it boosts their ability to adapt and behave.”

Looking toward the future of sleep research, Dr. Horner remarks that there is an increased awareness of the importance of sleep health—alongside nutrition and exercise—to human health more broadly. He specifically points to mechanisms of circadian biology and understanding the powerful influence of 24 hour rhythms on health as a major growth area in medical research, as well as understanding the role of sleep in optimizing and perhaps treating the growing burden of mental health problems.

In addition to engaging in outreach activities, Dr. Horner is incredibly committed to mentoring students, receiving numerous awards for excellence in teaching at both the graduate and undergraduate level. “I take the experience of graduate students very seriously and I think it’s the elephant in the room that obtaining a graduate degree is not always a great experience for trainees.” He cites several reasons for this. “I think a lot of trainees go into research without really knowing what it is or having a passion for it.” The perception in today’s world, he points out, is that in order to do well, you need to have a graduate degree and, for some, that is the main motivation rather than the research. “The second side of the equation is that not all supervisors are sufficiently caring [for] or mentoring their trainees.” On top of this, the many stresses that litter graduate careers are concerning from a mental health point of view. Dr. Horner reflects on a conversation with a colleague who noted that roughly 60% of graduate trainees at his institute have mental health concerns. “I think there are possibly similar numbers here. The people who are in the best position to help trainees… are their supervisors, peers and graduate units.” His advice for students is to choose their mentors wisely. “They should be looking after your well-being as well as the research.” Second, he encourages students to make sure they enjoy what they do. And finally, he advises students to, “put sleep in its place.” We don’t necessarily need to create rigid schedules for ourselves, but finding sufficient time and placing value in sleep allows us to wake up “at the top of our game,” which, I think we can all agree, is a great feeling.