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Bruce O'Hara

Research Interests:
Sleep and Circadian Rhythms

Ph.D. The Johns Hopkins Univ., 1988


Sleep and Circadian Rhythms


My research addresses questions related to sleep and circadian rhythms.  The research ranges from molecular and genetic approaches to behavioral studies in mice and humans.  Great progress has been made recently in understanding fundamental aspects of circadian rhythms, but many aspects of sleep are poorly understood.  Although sleep occupies approximately one third of our lives, we still cannot answer the basic question of why we sleep.  It now appears that most animals have some form of sleep, and birds and mammals generally have two very different kinds of sleep – Rapid-Eye-Movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep that may serve different or complementary functions.  In addition to fundamental questions about sleep function and sleep regulation, sleep is also of great medical and societal importance.  Sleep disturbances afflict approximately 75 million people in the United States alone, and even normal sleepers often get insufficient sleep due to lifestyle factors that can result in serious accidents, poor performance, lowered quality of life, and even grouchiness.  Clearly, something about the brain requires sleep and, in our view, genetic approaches in mice provide one of the best opportunities for a better understanding of sleep.   

Mice are an excellent model organism for genetic studies because there is a wide diversity of inbred strains.  Members of each individual inbred strain are genetically identical, like identical twins in humans, but among different strains there are many different alleles of each gene that contribute to physiological and behavioral differences.  We are currently investigating differences in sleep traits and other variables in diverse sets and combinations of inbred strains, and in genetically altered mice such as single gene knockouts.   

A major limitation in all studies of sleep in mice, or any mammal, is the difficulty of performing EEG/EMG analyses.  In mice and other rodents, this requires extensive surgery, recovery, cabling of animals, and considerable time for signal analyses.   Therefore, we developed a non-invasive, high-throughput alternative using a piezoelectric film attached to the floor of a mouse or rat cage, and then developed signal processing algorithms to score sleep and wake in real time.  This work is being done in collaboration with Prof. Kevin Donohue in Engineering and a team of researchers at a company we founded called Signal Solutions.  We currently have our system in use throughout the world, including many that we also collaborate with in areas such as Alzheimer's Disease, Traumatic Brain Injury, Epilepsy, COVID and infectious diseases, Opioid overdose, and many more.  Our system is also used at major interational centers performing large scale genomic screens to find genes and gene alleles that influence sleep, wake, activity, breathing, and many other behaviors, including several collaborations with investigators at The Jackson Laboratory.    

In addition to our studies in mice, we are also studying various aspects of sleep, meditation and performance in people, such as whether meditation might provide some of the restoration we normally associate with sleep.  We are using a well-validated psychomotor vigilance test that accurately reflects underlying sleepiness.  Our data thus far suggest meditation can indeed boost performance, and in a way that appears to compensate or pay-off sleep debt at least to a modest degree.   



Selected Publications:

Kaul P, J Passafiume, RC Sargent, BF O’Hara.  Meditation acutely improves psychomotor vigilance and may decrease sleep need.  Behav Brain Functions.  6:47 (pp. 1-9)  (2010).