Uncovering Clinical Meaning of Sleep in Early Cognitive Development


Mark Blumberg, MD, discusses his laboratory's particular interest in early REM sleep movement, and its potential impact on neurological disorders.

A vastly untapped territory of discovery and clinical intervention opportunity in the field of sleep may be at the very beginning of sleep itself.

In an interview with HCPLive during the Associated Professional Sleep Societies (SLEEP) 2022 Annual Meeting this week, Mark Blumberg, PhD, chair of the department of psychological and brain sciences at University of Iowa, discussed the topics of his session on how sleep may impact neurological development most significantly in infancy or early childhood—and why further research is needed in the space still.

“Even though we’ve know about the importance or at least the prevalence of sleep in early development for many decades, there really has not been, relatively speaking, a lot of research done in this domain,” Blumberg explained.

Blumberg’s laboratory is currently focused on rat-to-human translational research in sensory-motor system development, specifically looking at movements observed in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep stages that not only abundant among younger animal and human models, but “uniquely poised to contribute to the development of the sensory-motor system.”

“At a time when wake movements are relatively immature and not very functional, a lot of the movements that are happening during sleep we think are contributing to the development of the brain, how the brain maps the body, things like that,” he explained.

These sleep-based movements were once theorized to be associated with a person’s dreaming, when in reality its become clear to Blumberg and colleagues that they have their own mechanisms and are being “preferentially processed” by the nervous system.

His team may be able to contribute pathophysiological understanding to conditions including cerebral palsy, schizophrenia, and autism.

“When you look at neurodevelopmental disorders…they begin in early development as motor problems, and they have prevalent motor problems,” Blumberg explained. “Though you may call autism a neurological or psychiatric disorder, 80% or so of people with autism have often severe motor problems.”

Though there’s still uncertainty around what stage of pediatric—or even adolescent—development is most prevalent with opportunity for sleep movement-associated disorders, and research capacity is still limited in the field, Blumberg sees the prospect as very promising.

“We might be able to detect a problem earlier than we would have normally by focusing on sleep of all things—which I don’t think very many clinicians would think as something they would do,” he explained. “But if we can start to see when these problems start to emerge, then that provides a place where we can make contact with the developing human and prevent it from happening, treat it early, things like that.”

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