Sleep is almost as vital as food and water because it restores our bodies and minds and, in many ways, keeps us alive. Michael Larson PhD '92 never used to think about how vital sleep is until his daughter developed a sleep disorder as a high school senior. That problem turned their lives upside down.
The majority of people struggling with a sleep disorder—or other conditions that can cause insufficient sleep—use prescription medication as the primary treatment. With more than 55 million prescriptions written for sleep medications last year and an estimated 70 million suffering from insufficient sleep, the CDC is calling it America’s newest public health epidemic.
After Larson’s daughter experienced harmful side effects from her medication, he became determined to find a better solution. “Fortunately, having gone to MIT, I have a habit of thinking in an entrepreneurial way,” says Larson. He started researching sleep to learn everything he could in hopes of finding a remedy for his daughter. Because brain waves slow down significantly during sleep, Larson wondered: could something intentional be done to encourage the brain to slow down?
Larson found that the brain can be coaxed to slow its activity using audio tones called binaural beats, an auditory brainstem response caused by the interaction of two sounds that originate in opposite ears. The beat frequency would start out fast and would gradually decrease, causing the brain activity to do the same, to lead the brain into slower and deeper sleep states. The product that Larson developed is a sleep hat, named the Sleep Shepherd, which has thin speakers next to each ear and an EEG sensor to measure brain wave states. The hat measures the wearer’s brainwaves in real time and uses that data in a biofeedback loop to moderate the auditory tones. Although the early prototypes were pretty rudimentary, says Larson, his daughter quickly began to see improvements after wearing the hat to sleep each night.
After a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014, the product was officially launched. Larson has since heard numerous stories and testimonials about its effectiveness. “I’ve heard a lot of people say that they had been using sleep aids for years but now no longer have a need for it after using the product,” says Larson.
In addition to helping people get to sleep and stay asleep, the Sleep Shepherd helps users reach a deep level of sleep that is often elusive, especially later in life. Larson knows the product has great potential to help people, from the mildest to the more extreme cases of sleep disorders. He hopes that by perfecting the product and conducting research studies to quantify the benefits he can extend its reach. The next version of the product will include Bluetooth capability along with an accompanying app. The Sleep Shepherd is available online at www.sleephat.com and Amazon.com and starting this summer, the device will be carried by Brookstone, Sharper Image and The Grommet.
As Larson continues work on the Sleep Shepherd, he is also teaching half-time at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where he is a professor of engineering and holds the El Pomar Chair of Engineering and Innovation. Larson is also commercializing a medical device he invented that uses lasers to fuse biological tissue as an alternative to sutures or staples and is the inventor of a popular laser board game, Khet, which is used as a final project for course 6.172 and sold in the MIT museum.