When I was in sleep research over a decade ago, I remember reading some experimental protocols suggesting that one could help people get to sleep by cooling their brain. At first glance, it sounded crazy. But then I thought a bit more about it. We already know that the body uses temperature as a cue for regulating sleep and wake cycles. One of my favorite words ever is poikilothermia which describes a condition in which the body fails to regulate internal temperature. This phenomenon is seen in sleep deprived subjects, who can often complain of excess cold. It’s also found in normal patients who are in REM sleep (though less dramatically so). We also already know that keeping your bedroom temperature a bit on the cool side can help promote better sleep.
But I digress. Why would cooling the brain help with insomnia specifically? Thinking about the normal physiological reaction described above for REM, perhaps it could provide an external cue to the brain that it’s time to sleep in general. True enough. But another interesting finding in looking at Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRIs) of insomniacs is they tend to have elevated brain temperature secondary to increased nervous energy. It makes sense. Many insomniacs are kept up at night with racing, ruminating thoughts. The fMRI imaging shows that their glucose metabolism is actually higher, and thus, their brain temperature just a tad warmer than controls. Now the idea of cooling off an overactive brain makes more sense.
I was aware of several companies which were trying to capitalize on this insight over the past several years. In 2016, a company called Ebb got FDA approval for such a contraction. Now, it looks like they have just received FDA clearance on a device to go direct to consumers (without a prescription). This particular device uses a cooled headband to reduce the temperature on the forehead (a good place to start as the prefrontal cortex can carry a lot of that angst and over-thinking. Other companies are considering a nasal cannula that could shoot chilled air more directly into your brain via the nose. As these products are just coming to market, it’s a bit early to see if they work, but a great developing story to follow.
In the meantime, you could play around with this idea on the cheap by putting a cooling eye mask on your face before bed, or some other home-grown contraption. Insomnia remains an extremely difficult disorder to treat, and the current drugs out there leave something to be desired in terms of side effects, so it is exciting to see this technology becoming more accessible to all!
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