Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Researchers using math to reduce jet lag

Reducing jet lag is the aim of a new mathematical methodology and software program developed by researchers at U-M and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

A major cause of jet lag is the desynchronization of the body’s internal clock and the local environment when a person travels across several time zones. Symptoms include trouble sleeping at night and trouble staying awake during the day.

The new methodology and software program helps users resynchronize their internal clocks with the local time using light cues. The software program gives users exact times of the day when they should apply countermeasures such as bright light to intervene in the normal course of jet lag.

The findings were published in the June 19 issue of PLoS Computational Biology.
“This work shows how interventions can cut by half the number of days needed to adjust to a new time zone,” says Daniel Forger, an assistant professor of mathematics and a research assistant professor in the Department of Computational Medicine and Biology at the U-M Medical School. Forger is an author of the paper.

Timed light exposure is a well-known method for synching an individual’s internal clock with the environment, and when used properly, this intervention can reset that clock to align with local time. This results in more efficient sleep, a decrease in fatigue, and an increase in cognitive performance. Poorly timed light exposure can prolong the re-synchronization process.

“Because the timing of proper light exposure is so important in synching the internal clock with local time, we have developed this mathematical computation that is able to automate the process of determining the timing of appropriate light cues,” says Dennis Dean, a researcher in the Division of Sleep Medicine at BWH and the paper’s lead author.

Using the computation, researchers simulated shifting sleep and wake schedules and the subsequent light interventions for realigning internal clocks with local times. They found that the mathematical computation resulted in quicker design of schedules and also predictions of substantial performance improvements.

“Using this computation in a prototyped software application allows a user to estimate background light level and the number of time zones traveled to determine the recommendation of when to expose a subject to bright light, such as the bright light sometimes used to treat Season Affective Disorder, to realign the internal body clock,” Dean says
Although this method is not yet available to the public, it has direct implications for designing jet lag, shift-work and scheduling for extreme environments, such as in space, undersea or the Polar Regions, he says.

This is a practical way to combat jet lag, which can be a significant problem, Forger says. “There are a lot of situations in which being alert and not falling asleep at the wrong time is critical. Imagine you’re a military pilot, for example. You want to be at your optimal performance because mistakes can have huge consequences,” Forger says.

The next phase of this research includes the addition of interventions such as naps, caffeine and melatonin to help the process of realigning the internal body clock while reducing decreased performance experienced during travel across time zones.