“I have the privilege of watching students make their own discoveries and seeing their reaction when they suddenly discover that they can do this and realize they conceivably could be a scientist. And now they’re hooked. To see that, that’s exciting.”
He was naturally curious as a child growing up in the Netherlands. At the age of 8 or 9, he recalls being more interested in reading volumes of the encyclopedia than in playing outdoors.
He credits his dad, who worked at a museum that encouraged kids to interact with and touch the exhibits, with inspiring those instincts. When the museum received one of the country’s first computers, the young child was hooked, spending hours in his dad’s office learning how this exciting new machine worked, eventually learning to program it and other computers.
Later, an uncle, Bernard de Wit, stoked that curiosity. A high-energy physicist, de Wit was a member of the Dutch research team that later won the 1999 Nobel Prize in physics. He took the youngster to the Netherlands’ nuclear physics center. There, he remembers seeing large photographs of phenomena that weren’t completely understood at the time, including photos of protons and neutrons colliding, and thinking to himself, “This is awesome. I want to do something like this.”
So it was clear, early on, that Hans Van Dongen was headed for university studies. He chose to focus on astrophysics at the University of Leiden, the oldest university in the Netherlands, knowing he wasn’t destined to become an astrophysicist but reasoning that the degree would strengthen his knowledge about math, physics, chemistry, and biology, and build a strong foundation for a research-focused career.
The master’s degree was followed by a doctorate in chronobiology, also at the University of Leiden. There, he worked in the lab that studied the biological clock, putting the final puzzle piece in place for the work that has become the focus of his career: sleep, and its critical role in human performance.
Pursuit of those interests lured him across the Atlantic from the Netherlands to the University of Pennsylvania and then west to Washington State University’s health sciences campus in Spokane. There, in a low-slung brick building located on the edge of campus, he now leads one of the most advanced sleep and performance research centers in the world.
“This lab was built with the specific purpose of doing research at the intersection between basic science, looking at what goes wrong in the brain when you’re not getting enough sleep and what gets fixed in the brain when you do get enough sleep, and how sleep and sleep loss play out in the real world.”
Van Dongen’s team conducts its studies at the Sleep and Performance Research Center (SPRC), in a well-equipped 10,000-square-foot facility in Spokane that includes two contiguous labs: a sleep research lab and a simulation lab. The sleep research lab consists of a four-bedroom suite for test subjects who live at the facility for between four days and up to three weeks, giving researchers the opportunity to carefully study the effects of sleep and sleep loss on cognitive functioning. The simulation lab collects performance data in realistic simulated scenarios that may be encountered by police officers, military personnel, commercial drivers, and others who work in high-risk round-the-clock operations.
Together, the labs form an integrated sleep/wake/work facility, the only one of its kind in the world.
While the sleep center’s research portfolio is broad, Van Dongen is recognized internationally for two specific areas of expertise. The first involves the inter-individual differences in cognitive impairment resulting from sleep deprivation, which he proved to be a biological trait. That focus springs from discoveries he made while working on his doctorate at the University of Leiden and later as a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania.
“At the time,” he recalls, “the lab in which I was doing my doctoral work was shifting to a new area of research referred to as morningness-eveningness.” In other words, humans could be broadly classified as larks or owls, depending upon whether they preferred to get up early in the morning or go to bed late in the evening. This was believed to a personality trait.
Van Dongen’s pioneering research proved otherwise, showing the difference to be biological, linked to the biological clock that regulates the human brain. “So this means that people who are morning types do not do this voluntarily but they’re driven by their biology,” he explains. “And people that like to stay up late do this because of their biology. And we were the first to demonstrate this and publish the findings. That became the basis for my dissertation.”
“And people that like to stay up late do this because of their biology.”
His second area of expertise involves crunching numbers. Van Dongen’s ability to create mathematical and statistical models showing performance impairment due to fatigue make him a sought-after expert by organizations attempting to create fatigue management systems for their employees.
Since its inception in 2008 when Gregory Belenky was selected as the SPRC’s founding director following a distinguished career as director of the Division of Neuroscience at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, the SPRC has attracted more than $50 million in extramural funding for the university and produced more than 500 scientific publications. More than 100 graduate students and postdoctoral trainees have received their training there. The 13 core and 7 affiliated faculty members provide a cornerstone for WSU’s growing programs in the health sciences. Van Dongen succeeded Belenky as the SPRC’s director in 2014.
“We all value our wakefulness because it’s so important to be able to do a lot of different things, and there is great virtue in that. But there is also great virtue in getting enough sleep because getting sleep makes your wake productive time so much better.”
Just how important is sleep to overall health?
Van Dongen says it’s one of the foundational building blocks of good health. “There’s so much research going on right now,” he says, the excitement in his voice growing. “We’ve learned that if you don’t get enough sleep, it has short-term consequences . . . you’ll make more errors, you’ll feel less well, and your mood might deteriorate.”
And cutting corners on sleep on a repeated basis can cause a host of ills, ranging from sleep disorders to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weight issues, metabolic problems, gastrointestinal illness, and cancer. Increased risk for certain cancers, he notes, is linked in particular to individuals who work night shifts.
“We’re not 100 percent sure yet exactly how you get from the short-term effects to these long-term effects, other than we know it happens. And the difficulty in that regard is, of course, to really nail that down you need to follow people for multiple weeks to multiple years, and that kind of research is very costly and difficult to do.”
Much of Van Dongen’s current research focuses on the short-term effects of inadequate sleep. His studies often examine the connection between worker fatigue and decision making in 24/7 industries with long hours, high workloads, or both. The point, he says, is to change the conditions that lead to on-the-job accidents or worse—think accidental disasters like Chernobyl and the space shuttle Challenger, both precipitated by human error affected by inadequate sleep.
“You want to work with people’s schedules and try to provide them with the opportunities to get the sleep they need,” he says, “because ultimately the best medicine is prevention.”
Indicative of the growing value attached to understanding sleep, Van Dongen and his team have conducted studies for major government agencies and industries, including branches of the U.S. military, the Department of Transportation, the National Institutes of Health, the trucking and airline industries, and NASA. Van Dongen regularly flies around the globe to deliver invited lectures about sleep. In just the last couple of years he has visited Estonia, Finland, Brazil, Canada, Taiwan, France, and Australia, among other countries.
“Pretty much everybody has a stake in this game,” he notes. The military, for example, invests heavily in research focused not only on how sleep-deprived individuals can perform better in combat situations, but is interested in understanding the fundamental science that affects decision-making in those situations.
“In my area, research is never a single project. One project builds upon another, and along the way we try to do good things, for science and for society.”
The opportunity to conduct innovative research that translates to real-world change inspires Van Dongen. For that reason, he singles out multiple phases of research conducted during the last decade for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration as particularly satisfying.
The first phase of the effort demonstrated that the work schedule regulations governing rest periods for truck drivers didn’t allow the optimal recuperative time for drivers working night shifts. That led to additional studies the center conducted to develop solutions to the problem.
“And that’s the full trajectory of taking research all the way from the lab into the actual real world and showing that it makes a difference”
Those solutions, which included recommendations for increasing the rest period of nighttime drivers, were subsequently incorporated into new federal regulations implemented by the Department of Transportation.
And finally, the SPRC conducted a study between January and July 2013 demonstrating that the new regulations were indeed effective in mitigating driver fatigue compared with the previous rules.
“And that’s the full trajectory of taking research all the way from the lab into the actual real world and showing that it makes a difference,” Van Dongen says. “And that’s an exciting trajectory.”
Another compelling example of moving innovation from the lab to the marketplace is the drowsy driver detection device the team developed in 2010-2011 and patented last year.
The device itself isn’t a new idea. Most existing systems, typically camera-based, monitor one of two behaviors: the vehicle drifting off the roadway, or changes in the driver’s facial characteristics, such as drooping eyelids. Neither approach is reliable. The first often detects the problem when it’s too late to prevent an accident. The second doesn’t work well if the driver is wearing glasses or moving out of the camera frame.
Applying some of the lessons learned in the simulation lab when studying the schedule of truck drivers, Van Dongen and postdoctoral research fellow Pia Forsman developed technology based on steering wheel movement, which is more variable in tired drivers. A signal generated from the movement of the steering wheel measures the speed and the degree of wheel movement. When the signal reaches a prescribed level, the driver could be warned to pull off the road.
“Our invention provides an inexpensive and user-friendly technology that can help catch fatigue earlier, well before accidents are likely to happen,” Van Dongen points out. With the patent in hand, the SPRC now seeks to move the device into the commercial marketplace. The solution uses inexpensive, easy-to-install parts that could be included as part of a factory installation or aftermarket accessory.
“Fatigued workers cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars a year. Not all of that could be recovered simply by saying that we need to sleep more, because the economy operates 24 hours a day. But can we do better? And the answer is we can.”
Numerous national studies indicate that, as a whole, humans are not getting enough shut-eye. A recent National Sleep Foundation poll found that about 20 percent of Americans function on less than six hours of sleep on average. A similar poll indicated 59 percent of sixth through eighth graders and 87 percent of high school students in the United States were getting less than the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep on school nights.
“We forgot about the biology that makes us who we are.”
What’s gone haywire? Van Dongen points to the 24/7 nature of a society seemingly hooked to instant access to goods and services and the innate socialness of human beings which, left unchecked, drives them to use electronic devices to stay connected to each other around the clock.
Somewhere along the way, he reasons, society has transformed instant access from a nice-to-have characteristic to a must-have characteristic. “We must always be reachable. We must always be productive. We must always be awake,” he says. “We forgot about the biology that makes us who we are. That got in the way and we ignored it.”
And then Van Dongen delves deeper into the biology, noting that the internal clock of humans is genetically programmed to induce sleep at night. Individuals can overcome that programming on a temporary basis. But even after just a minor amount of sleep deprivation, the brain of the affected individual may reach a kind of breaking point, at which he or she experiences a sudden lapse of attention, a short period in which cognitive functioning halts.
It’s in those moments that humans miss cues indicating that something is amiss in their environment. It’s why a night shift worker monitoring a production process misses a warning light indicating malfunctioning equipment. Or why a driver doesn’t notice a light changing from yellow to red at a busy intersection. At its extreme, those moments result in disasters.
“For instance,” Van Dongen points out, “the Challenger disaster was precipitated by decision-makers being told that things were wrong, but they didn’t process the information. They missed it because they were sleep deprived. And then, ultimately, a disastrous decision to launch was made.”
“The research here runs the whole spectrum from very basic to very applied, and then circles all the way back. And that makes it very exciting because we work with lots of different parts of society and parts of science.”
Van Dongen relishes his career. On a personal level, he’s discovered a niche in the world of science that has allowed him to explore new frontiers in understanding sleep and wakefulness. More broadly—and what he finds deeply gratifying—are the solutions he and his team develop to improve the quality of life for millions of individuals around the world.
“So many aspects of this are rewarding,” he offers, pausing. “The most obvious one is when you work with a group of people that have a fatigue problem or a sleep issue and you can offer a solution. And they implement it and they tell you it worked.”
“So many aspects of this are rewarding.”
But, he’s quick to add, the basic science involving sleep and the brain is equally satisfying. He cites the example of partnering with colleagues in the university’s psychology department to conduct research that led to the discovery of new fundamental principles identifying the cognitive issues that occur in the brain when an individual doesn’t get enough sleep. “That is fulfilling because these are true original scientific discoveries.”
And finally—and perhaps most important—Van Dongen addresses the joy he derives from mentoring students, guiding them through the process of discovery, analysis, and sharing of research findings. A lab frequently operating around the clock provides ample hands-on opportunities for students to learn first-hand about life as a scientist.
“I have the privilege of watching students make their own discoveries and seeing their reaction when they suddenly discover that they can do this and realize they conceivably could be a scientist,” Van Dongen says, smiling. “And now they’re hooked. To see that, that’s exciting.”
Sounds a lot like his own experience growing up in the Netherlands, when the adults in his life sparked Van Dongen’s curiosity about the world surrounding him. It’s a curiosity that has blossomed ever since.