Written By

Nicolette Ward


College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences

Publish Date

14 March 2022

Related Study Areas

Ever wondered what a sleep scientist does?

JCU Biomedical Science Alumni Laura Marriott tells us about her role as a clinical scientist working at a newly-opened Rockhampton based telehealth sleep clinic.

My path to becoming a sleep scientist or clinical scientist was not that straightforward because I didn’t really know anything about it when I chose to go to uni. I started out in Biomedical Science because I knew it would open up multiple pathways related to science and healthcare.

At high school I never did subjects like chemistry and physics so I did JCU’s Diploma of Higher Education before starting my degree which really helped to set me up for my future studies.

Before starting uni I worked as a dental clinic nurse and then as a clinic manager and I always enjoyed the patient side to the work, so I really wanted to find something that would allow me to use my biomedical knowledge but still be interacting with patients, which is what clinical physiologists get to do. They conduct a range of physiological testing on patients including for cardiac, respiratory and neurological health and work alongside a range of health professionals.

So after completing my degree in Biomedical Science I looked for a way to becoming a clinical physiologist/scientist and found I could do this by completing a Graduate Diploma in Medical Sciences at JCU, which offers two majors, one of which is Clinical Sciences.

My Graduate Diploma studies included 36 weeks of clinical hospital-based placements, conducting cardiac, respiratory, and neurological investigations, and I was actually offered a position as a Sleep Clinical Scientist while completing my final placement at Rockhampton Hospital.

What happens when you sleep?

The most fascinating thing about being a sleep scientist is the union of cardiac, respiratory, and neuroscience that it involves. That’s because we monitor respiratory rate, heart rate, brain wave activity (known as EEG), as well as general muscle movement in order to delineate phases of sleep. We're looking at all of that data blended together to discern whether or not there is a sleep disorder and to quantify its severity.

For example, when you're experiencing restorative, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, you get what's called muscle atonia, which is the relaxation of muscular tone, almost like being paralysed. That’s why we attach electrodes along the patient’s chin and along their legs to record whether there is any muscle movement in their sleep cycles. We also monitor their eye movements which indicate REM sleep as characterised by the darting of the eyes behind closed eyelids. In REM sleep, brain activity also accelerates which is why the most vivid dreaming occurs in REM sleep.

Most importantly, REM sleep is thought to assist important cognitive abilities such as memory consolidation. This is because during REM sleep the space between the cortical neurons in your brain increases by up to 60 per cent which in turn allows cerebral spinal fluid to infiltrate these spaces and ‘wash’ the neurons. This acts like a restorative cleansing for your brain!

"Sleep allows both the brain and body to slow down and engage in processes of recovery, promoting better physical and mental performance the next day and over the long-term."

JCU Graduate Laura Marriott

A woman holds a sleep apnea mask.
Laura Marriott at work.
Right: JCU Graduate and sleep scientist, Laura Marriott. (Supplied.)

The benefits of healthy sleep

Research shows that sleep allows both the brain and body to slow down and engage in processes of recovery, promoting better physical and mental performance the next day and over the long-term. If your sleep is persistently disrupted, then these recovery processes can become short-circuited and have a negative effect on your concentration, energy levels, and hormones such as melatonin, cortisol [stress response hormone], growth hormones, and leptin and grehlin [hormones that regulate metabolism]. In short, poor sleep can set you up for impaired cognition as well as hormone-induced cravings for high sugar carbohydrate dense foods that will further decrease cognitive efficacy.

Sleeping patterns can also influence the cardiovascular and immune systems, so it can be potentially dangerous for patients to go untreated if they do have any kind of sleep disorder or disturbance. Another really dangerous side effect of severely impaired sleep is that you may also be so tired during the day that you are at risk of spontaneously falling asleep. It's a dangerous risk, especially when driving, which is why many long-distance drivers may require clearance for work.

Severe sleep disorders include Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (where breathing repeatedly stops and starts, depriving the brain of critical oxygen) and narcolepsy (overwhelming daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep). There are also circadian rhythm sleep disorders that can occur with shift workers, hypersomnolence (when a person feels excessive tiredness even after a full night’s sleep),  periodic limb movement disorder (repetitive cramping or jerking of the legs during sleep), and REM behaviour disorder (physically acting out vivid dreams with vocal sounds and sudden arm and leg movements during REM sleep).

"Sleep disorders can often be insidious, and when treated effectively, patients always report that they never knew they could feel so good after a good night's sleep!"

JCU Graduate Laura Mariott

Even insomnia can have some serious effects as people may not be progressing through enough sleep cycles to get proper rest, leading to daytime sleepiness as well as negative effects on mood and thinking. Sleep deprivation, which can often occur with insomnia, can also result in what we call a ‘REM sleep rebound’, meaning that you may spend a disproportionate amount of time in REM sleep which can cause too much brain activity, and in turn, leave you feeling irritable with anxiety and depression likely to be heightened. REM sleep should take up between 20 to 25 percent of total sleep in healthy adults, which means on average, we should be spending about two hours per night dreaming.

Laura prepares a patient for monitoring their sleep.
Laura helps a patient put on monitoring equipment.
Laura Marriott prepares a patient for monitoring their sleep. (Supplied.)

New sleep service for Rockhampton

In my role as a Sleep Scientist, I prepare patients with a portable sleep recording device for monitoring physiological signals that they then take home to wear overnight during sleep.

These at-home sleep studies are part of a new Telehealth Sleep service being conducted in Rockhampton where all patients within central Queensland can receive specialised care closer to home, instead of needing to travel to major centres like Townsville or Brisbane.

The TeleHealth Sleep Service is being run in conjunction with the Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital and includes portable sleep studies and consultations with Sleep Physicians via TeleHealth. We also manage the use of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machines as a first line therapy for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea.

Anyone experiencing issues with their sleep should see their GP who can then make a referral for you to have a sleep study done by a clinic like ours at Rockhampton hospital. Even if you are just feeling really tired during the day and have a habit of nodding off, or have a habit of snoring that wakes you up, or are waking up with a dry mouth and headache, all of these could be signs that your quality of sleep is suffering. Sleep disorders can often be insidious, and when treated effectively, patients always report that they never knew they could feel so good after a good night's sleep!

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