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Sleep and chronobiology research for human health in modern society 

For over 40 years, the University of Surrey has led research in the field of sleep and chronobiology. Its researchers across the biomedical, social and physical sciences have collaborated to explore and understand the regulation and function of sleep and circadian (body clock) rhythms in humans, unveiling the underlying mechanisms of insufficient sleep and circadian disturbance, and developing novel interventions to correct these disturbances. 

This research has an important bearing on human health, particularly in today’s industrialised societies where natural rhythms are challenged by work and social schedules, exposure to artificial light and access to digital devices. Insufficient sleep and disturbances in the body’s natural circadian timing system are risk factors for serious adverse health consequences including cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, cognitive impairment and dementia, as well as reduced productivity and increased likelihood of accidents.  

The University has taken a unique approach in this field. It is the only UK institution that combines the disciplines of sleep and chronobiology. It is also the first to translate basic research from animals to humans, which has paved the way for clinical applications and lifestyle recommendations to improve sleep and circadian health.  

The University’s research breakthroughs include the discovery by Professor Debra Skene, Chronobiology Section Lead, that melatonin can restore synchronisation of the body clock in blind people – leading to the first European Medicines Agency and US Food and Drug Administration approved treatment for a debilitating cyclic sleep disorder which affects around 5.6m people globally. Surrey research also proved that the human circadian clock is very sensitive to blue light, which has brought about universal changes in lighting design standards and consumer behaviour. Research led by Anne Skeldon of the Department of Mathematics in collaboration with Professor Derk-Jan Dijk, Director of the Surrey Sleep Research Centre, have created the first quantitative mathematical framework to combine the biological mechanisms regulating sleep with primary external drivers (the light environment) and social constraints (such as getting up for work or school) – prompting live debates about daylight saving and school start times, and informing a Californian State Bill on school start times. 

The research has transformed awareness of the fundamental role played by sleep and the body clock in health and wellbeing among clinicians, industry, public bodies and the general public – delivering profound effects on modern society. 

Further information on the University’s sleep and chronobiology research can be found here: https://www.surrey.ac.uk/faculty-health-medical-sciences/research/chronobiology-and-sleep 


Story & photo by the University of Surrey