Your fancy sleep tracker is no match for a dedicated sleep lab. But who wants to spend 8 hours in a strange hospital room wired with electrodes while someone video records you all night? Now, several companies say they may have a compromise: high-tech sleep-monitoring headbands that combine brain wave–reading electrodes with sophisticated artificial intelligence. And best of all, they can be worn in your own bed.
The technology could make it easier to get accurate readings of someone’s sleep patterns at home, says Tristan Bekinschtein, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom who was not involved with designing any of the devices. A prime benefit, he says, is that they get rid of the wires that inhibit movement during sleep and they can be used over multiple nights. Still, he says, the technology needs more testing before it becomes widely used in clinical research.
One of the leading devices in sleep monitoring is the Dreem headband, developed by a company of the same name based in Paris. The headband is made of a slim, breathable piece of fabric designed to wrap around the head, with a separate arch extending over the top. Seven electrodes line the inner portion, making contact with the scalp.
The device monitors the electrical activity of the brain with the traditional electroencephalogram readings taken in a sleep lab. And, as in sleep lab studies, the headband also tracks head movement, heart rate, and respiration, relying on sound recordings and a miniature accelerometer like those found in smartphones. Built-in artificial intelligence analyzes the data on the fly, identifying whether a person is, for example, in rapid eye movement sleep or other known stages like non–rapid eye movement sleep, which are not as deep.
Sleep studies normally require a trained technician to read, record, and analyze traditional sleep study data, Bekinschtein notes, but the Dreem headband collects data and wirelessly transmits them to a smartphone. It’s now available to the public for $499.
Dreem contends that its headband reliably collects nearly all the same data as a traditional sleep lab study, known as polysomnography. It also tracks the various stages of a person’s sleep equally well, the company reported in a paper posted last month on the preprint server bioRxiv. “Polysomnography … hasn’t changed over the last 50 years,” says Pierrick Arnal, Dreem’s scientific director and the lead scientist on the project. “We tried to build a way to monitor [brain waves] with something user-friendly.”
A number of university labs are now using the Dreem headband to research addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. The device monitors the brainwaves of experiment participants while they experience symptoms of either condition, such as nightmares, as well as sleep disorders like sleep apnea and insomnia. Similar devices—such as SmartSleep, developed by the Philips corporation headquartered in Amsterdam—have also been used in sleep research labs across the world.
Bekinschtein himself has been using the Dreem headband in his studies of consciousness. He says the device is useful because the people involved in his studies are more comfortable than in a traditional sleep lab and can be observed over many nights, yielding better data. Still, he says the information collected by the headband is not a replacement for polysomnography, but rather a means of collecting complimentary data to help diagnose sleep disorders. He also says the headbands don’t document some aspects of sleep disorders, such as leg movements or sleep walking.
Bekinschtein predicts sleep labs will use such devices more and more as the technology progresses. “There is hope that as these systems continue to improve, you answer will questions in ways scientists need,” he says.
“Ultimately, I’m excited about all of these products that are coming along,” says Nathaniel Watson, a neurologist and sleep specialist at the University of Washington in Seattle who also uses the new sleep monitors in his lab. “They’re really improving our understanding of human sleep.”