How to Survive a Nuclear Apocalypse – Fiona McBride

With global tensions increasing by the day and some of the world’s largest nuclear weapon stores seemingly presided over by five-year-olds, there’s no time like the present to work out your survival plan. Here are some tips:

  • Keep an eye on the news, especially with regards to anywhere that has nuclear missiles. Watch out for signs that an attack may be likely such as threats, rising global tension, or a lack of resolution to problematic events. If you seriously think that a nuclear attack is imminent, GET AS FAR AWAY AS POSSIBLE. Avoid anywhere likely to get involved in the missile frenzy. Stay away from likely targets, such as capital cities, military bases, and areas with large populations or strategic importance. Another celestial body might be preferable, although inhospitable (and the USA did once develop a plan to nuke the moon, so it’s not entirely out of the question).


  • Plan somewhere safe to shelter. If it seems tensions are rising but you’re not quite ready to grab your bags and head for the wilderness/jungle/Mars, or you have no way of getting there, having a shield from the radiation could be the difference between your future and imminent death. Go for somewhere with as much stuff between you and the outside world as possible – basements and places with thick concrete walls are best. Stash plenty of food, blankets and first aid supplies inside, because you could be there a while. A means of communicating with the outside world, such as a fully charged non-smart phone of the kind that have battery life that lasts for several days, is also a good idea, so that you can keep an ear out for what’s going on. Ideally, your shelter would be in a spot that you can get to quickly, such as your home or workplace.


  • If a nuclear strike is imminent – as in, the bomb is currently on its way, HEAD TO YOUR SHELTER POINT. If you’re unlikely to be able to get there before destruction strikes, find the nearest available shelter. The same basic principles apply as the spot you planned to shelter in: the more physical material between you and the outside world, the better. Nuclear strikes deposit a very large amount of energy onto a small area that then spreads very quickly through the surroundings, so more material between you and the strike point means more other stuff to absorb this energy – in the forms of both nuclear radiation and extreme heat, as well as objects displaced by the blast – before it gets to you. There’s a reason structures such as nuclear power stations and Margaret Thatcher’s Secret Nuclear Bunker are made of very thick concrete: it’s great at absorbing large amounts of energy without becoming structurally compromised or catching fire.


  • After the strike: stay put for an absolute minimum of 48 hours. The longer the better: radioactive isotopes decay with time, so more waiting equals fewer radioactive particles out there to harm you. The most dangerous product of a nuclear attack, Iodine, has a half-life of 8-9 days – meaning that after that time has elapsed, there will be half as many deadly iodine particles out there waiting for you. However, that’s still quite a few, and there are other highly dangerous explosion products that will still be out there. When you do venture back out into the world, cover up as much skin as possible to minimise contact with the radioactive particles and prevent burns. Limit your time outside to be as short as possible, to minimise your exposure to radiation. When collecting supplies, anything packaged is safe to eat as long as the container is intact. Plants are safe, especially those where the edible part is underground, such as carrots. Water is likely to have been contaminated by small radioactive particles, so only use water from underground sources or sealed tanks or the pipework of buildings. However you get your food and water, ration it out carefully so that your supplies last as long as possible: who knows when more will become available.


  • First aid: radiation sickness is non-contagious, so it’s perfectly safe to treat those who have sustained burns or sickness from the attack. Do not pop blisters or rip off cloth that is stuck to skin as this will slow healing and increase risk of infection – just disinfect as far as possible, and cover open wounds with a burn dressing or clingfilm.


  • Future attacks are likely to occur, although probably not in the same city. Pay attention to any news you can get hold of, and be prepared for another attack any day. Even if you weren’t personally in the city that was hit, if you’re in or near a major centre of population or area of strategic importance in that country or any of the allies of any nation involved, you’re at major risk.


In addition to these practical tips, it’s good to have some idea of what different radiation levels mean. There are three types of radiation:

  • Alpha particles: these are tiny particles which, although very dangerous if inhaled, can only travel a couple of meters through air, and are stopped by a single sheet of paper. Wearing a dust mask and normal clothing will keep you safe from these.
  • Beta particles: these can travel faster and further than alpha particles, and have an effect similar to bad sunburn.
  • Gamma radiation: this is literally a wave of energy that can travel through air and most materials. Gamma radiation causes the DNA in living cells to mutate, leading to radiation sickness and cancer. Gamma rays themselves can travel around a mile through air (although the further away you are from the source, the less energy they have by the time they reach you, so the less significant the damage), but also spread as radiation-emitting particles are blown by the wind or carried by water sources.


Radiation is measured in Grays (Gy). Exposure to 1 Gy of radiation leads to a noticeable decrease in red blood cells and antibody production in humans but is survivable without medical treatment; 50% of humans exposed to 4 Gy will be dead within a month, and the rest will have severe symptoms of radiation sickness. Being aware of the scale of effect of different amounts of radiation may help you to decide where and when it is safe to move to.


Above all, watch out for signs that an attack may be imminent, and stay indoors. If you find yourself in the presence of someone with access to any Big Red Buttons, for the sake of all our futures, do not antagonise them!


Mitochondrial DNA: Uses and Dangers by Beth Firmin

Rather than being completely controlled by the cell nucleus, mitochondria contain their own genome. Though this genome is tiny, only containing 37 genes in human cells, it is believed to have once contained more genes that were eventually lost to the nucleus over evolution – this means that many mitochondrial proteins are now encoded within the nucleus. Aerobic (using oxygen) respiration via mitochondria requires different complexes composed of multiple proteins; most of these contain proteins encoded by both the nuclear and mitochondrial genomes, which means both nuclear and mitochondrial genomes are needed for respiration.

Unlike nuclear DNA, mitochondrial DNA is only inherited maternally. Mechanisms of this uniparental inheritance (from one parent only) have been debated. Dilution effects have been suggested, in which the female gamete contains an extremely large number of mitochondria while the male gamete has limited mitochondria. This would mean that, when these two cells fuse together, almost all the mitochondria (and the DNA they contain) in the resulting embryonic cell are from the oocyte, making the paternal contribution negligible. However, this explanation has been criticised as over-simplified, and evidence has been found of paternal mitochondria being actively destroyed in the fertilisation process. Another topic of heated debate is how and why uniparental inheritance of mitochondria evolved!

Mitochondrial diseases occur due to inadequate mitochondrial functioning, which can be caused by mutations in the mitochondrial DNA. As the ATP demands of higher organisms such as humans cannot be met by anaerobic respiration (not using oxygen) in the cytoplasm alone, mutations decreasing the efficiency of mitochondrial respiration can lead to diseases. Some examples of mitochondrial diseases are Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON), age-related hearing loss and myoclonic epilepsy with ragged-red fibres (MERRF).

However, mitochondrial disease is more complicated than disease being present if certain gene mutations are present. People contain different populations of mitochondria with different DNA, both within the same cell and different cells. Disease presence, tissue-specific symptoms and severity depend on the proportion of healthy to defective mitochondria. Mitochondrial disease occurs if a certain threshold of defective mitochondria is reached. A female with cells containing both healthy and defective mitochondria but below the disease threshold, may produce an oocyte with a higher proportion of defective mitochondria, resulting in a child with a mitochondrial disease from an apparently healthy female. Also, individuals with the same mitochondrial DNA mutation will display different severities based on proportions of healthy to defective mitochondria.

When the embryo cell divides to produce the zygote, the segregation of different mitochondria may not be even, so some tissues may receive more faulty mitochondria than others. This can explain why, in mitochondrial diseases that can affect multiple tissues, an individual with one mutation may display symptoms in some tissues, but an individual with that same mutation may display symptoms in different tissues. Also, mitochondrial disease thresholds differ between cell types, based on the ATP requirements of that cell. The threshold is lower for energy-intensive tissues, explaining why mitochondrial diseases mostly affect the brain, eyes, ears, muscles and heart.

Gene mutations accumulate throughout an organism’s lifespan – mitochondrial DNA are especially vulnerable to this, due to less capable repair mechanisms and their constant production of molecules that have the potential to induce mutations. Therefore, mitochondrial diseases often worsen or arise during aging. In addition, gene expression can be modified without changing the genetic code, a phenomenon referred to as epigenetics. Epigenetics is mostly studied in nuclear DNA, but this can occur in mitochondrial DNA as well, and could affect mitochondrial functioning.

Mitochondrial DNA can be use medically, perhaps most notably in assistive reproductive technologies (ART). Fertility issues may be caused by insufficient mitochondria in oocytes (below 100,000 can be considered inviable), so increasing the number of functional mitochondria in the oocyte may increase the egg’s chance of surviving. This can be carried out via transferring the cytoplasm of the oocyte from a healthy donor oocyte (or perhaps from a patient oocyte). This technique has been used since the late 1990s, resulting in healthy offspring.

A more recent development, however, is mitochondria replacement – resulting in what have commonly been referred to as ‘three-parent babies’. The UK became first country to legalise this, allowing females with known mitochondrial diseases to have mitochondrial disease-free children, by replacing the defective mitochondria with those from a healthy donor. Two different methods may be used: spindle transfer involves fusing the chromosomes of the female’s unfertilised egg to the unfertilised egg on the healthy donor female (which has had its chromosomes removed), while pro-nuclear transfer transfers nuclear DNA from the patient’s fertilised egg to the fertilised egg of the donor (which has had its nuclear DNA removed).

However, it has been suggested that some defective mitochondrial DNA may persist in the embryos produced, and replication of this DNA may occur to increase the population of defective mitochondria. If this occurs, mitochondrial disease thresholds may be reached as mutations accumulate during aging. While some mitochondrial genomes appear to be preferentially replicated, our understanding of how these genomes are chosen is largely incomplete. Therefore, while mitochondrial replacement is a ground-breaking development, we cannot be sure of its long-term implications and risks.

Dressing the Incredibles by Fiona McBride


Now that the long-awaited Incredibles II is well and truly out there for us, complete with a host of new characters, inventions and villains, pH7 takes a look through the glasses of delightful engineer, materials scientist and fashion designer Edna Mode, and the (hypothetical) science behind her super designs.

Elastigirl- part-time superhero, part time Mum, Helen Parr- has the power of being incredibly flexible; in fact, her whole body can stretch up to five* times her normal height and expand horizontally to form a parachute, tethered to an object (such as a runaway high speed train) by her limbs. Her super suit must therefore be made of something with very high levels of elasticity so that it can not only stretch as far as she can, but also spring back into her usual size and shape at the drop of a hat. The best material for the job – at least, that’s available to those of us outside the Pixar universe – is spider silk: it can stretch up to five times its original length with no problems, just like Elastigirl. It can also be woven into a soft, breathable fabric with high tensile strength – so it will be pleasant to wear, and won’t tear if it gets snagged on anything.

Elastigirl also has a super-sexy way of getting around: the Elasticycle. Although the one in the movies is built by DevTech’s inventor Evelyn, it seems pretty safe to assume that this isn’t her first super-motorbike. To make the Elasticycle as fast and efficient as possible, the ideal material for the outer casing is carbon fiber: it’s tough and very lightweight, so the minimum energy is required to make it move fast. Since the Elasticycle can stretch just as far as Elastigirl herself, it’s going to need a high torque permanent magnet motor in each wheel. This way, she can accelerate the front wheel to stretch out, and accelerate the back wheel to catch it up to the front as she returns to her normal size.

Mr Incredible- Bob Parr- is a very classical sort of superhero: his outfit needs only to be strong, stretchy and well-fitting, so that his gargantuan muscles have space to flex, and any attempts to save the day aren’t thwarted by his suit getting caught in an inconvenient bicycle chain. Of course, Mr Incredible’s real superhero moment in Incredibles II might be considered the occasion on which he stayed up all night learning elementary maths in order to help Dash with his homework – in which case, perhaps he needs an outfit with a large pocket perpetually stocked with snacks, coffee, and school textbooks. Since the modern-day superhero might find all of these things using a combination of a kitchen and the internet, pH7 suggests that his suit should be made out of spider silk, as it fulfils the required properties for saving the world, matches his wife’s nicely (aww) and is relatively easy to wash on occasions where it ends up covered in cookie crumbs.

Despite renouncing her super suit part way through the movie, Violet still needs an outfit to make the most of her abilities – turning invisible, and generating a controllable forcefield capable of levitating her and resisting bullets. However, Violet cannot make her clothes invisible, so her suit needs to be able to turn invisible when she does. Invisibility isn’t something mortal scientists have cracked yet, however researchers at MIT have calculated that covering an object in tiny hairlike structures called nanowires could make it so. Nanowires deflect light so that it bends around an object rather than bouncing off it (we see by detecting the light reflected by things). Given that Edna Mode is no mere mortal scientist, pH7 are sure that she could build Violet a suit incorporating a layer of nanowires that extend whenever she disappears from view, making the suit invisible right along with her.

Given that a forcefield is essentially a barrier made of pure energy – which makes sense, as Violet is always super tired after maintaining it for a long period of time – pH7 assumes that she creates her forcefield by emitting and controlling ultraviolet radiation, since both of the other Parr children have names that reflect their powers. This would allow her to send out energy to repel objects. Since ultraviolet rays have a wavelength of 10-400 nanometres, a suit made of a material with gaps of a few nanometres between its fibres, such as microfiber polyester, would help the radiation she emits to diffract (where waves spread out as a result of travelling through a gap of similar size to their wavelength), meaning it would take less energy for Violet to form a forcefield bubble. The gaps in microfiber polyester are also perfectly sized for the nanofibres required to make Violet’s suit invisible; it’s also a stretchy, breathable material perfect for running and battling villains in.

Running is really the pursuit of Dashiel ‘Dash’ Robert Parr though; he’s always rushing about. Dash’s super suit needs to be made of something easy to move in, such as lycra (do superheroes sweat? If they do, this is perfect too). Although lycra is slick and shiny on its own, coating Dash’s suit in thousands of tiny “scales” made of polytetrafluoroethylene (the same stuff as the Teflon on non-stick pans) would reduce the friction between Dash and the air, letting him move even faster. Adding the teflon as scales gives Dash more room to stretch and makes the suit more breathable – as well as allowing in some air to reduce the risk of it catching fire from going so fast! Some shoes with plenty of cushioning in the heel to absorb energy and help his feet push back off the ground, and a tough grippy sole to protect from shrapnel and other after-effects of villains are also a must-have to keep Dash moving.

Jack-Jack’s frequent shifting and broad range of powers – he is, after all, a “Jack-of-all-trades” –  make designing him a suit a particularly interesting challenge; it’s no wonder Edna spends an entire night observing him before coming up with a super suit. Since Mozart’s music is key to helping him engage his powers, fitting a small, waterproof speaker into the neck of the suit might be useful in helping Jack-Jack keep control. Several of Jack-Jack’s seventeen known powers could be enhanced by a super-suit: a grippy material would help with  his ability to cling to vertical surfaces, and weaving the suit out of something with high electrical conductivity would improve his ability to direct the electricity he can generate. His suit should also be resistant to very high temperatures, as Jack-Jack’s powers are likely to lead to it being subjected to high levels of current, as well as flames. The suit material also needs to be incredibly stretchy as Jack-Jack is able to expand to several times his usual size. Giving the suit an outer layer woven from mineral wool would improve its heat- and flame-resistant properties; this could be formed into a mesh structure similar to knitted clothing to allow Jack-Jack to stretch and move around easily. Adding in textured bobbles made of silicone similar to that used for baking sheets and cooking spatulas would help increase the grippiness of the suit to make it even easier to stick to and climb up vertical surfaces. Dr Edna Mode has really outdone herself with this one; pH7’s collection of scientists, engineers and researchers are at a loss for how to make a suit for a baby that can multiply itself and visit the fourth dimension. Not all heroes wear capes!**


*pH7 estimates

**Yes, we know that none of the sensible ones do – again, thanks to Edna’s excellent analysis and design skills.

Hypnagogia – why do we hallucinate before falling asleep? by Fatima Sheriff

“Phantasmata”, “praedormitium”, “oneitogogic images”, and my personal favourite: “dreamlets”… all proposed terms for the phenomenon of hallucinating as you fall asleep. Coming from the Greek for “sleep” and “guide”, ‘hypnagogia’ categorises a mixture of sensory experiences occurring around 10 minutes into “pre-sleep’. In the UK, 37% of people surveyed reported these hallucinations with a further 12.5% reporting “hypnapompic” hallucinations upon waking up, myself among the latter.

A study performed by Noreika involved those in hypnagogia pressing a button when a vision appeared while monitored with an EEG. A correlation was found, not with any abnormality in brain waves, but with “sudden changes towards the orderly brain state during sleep”. The theory is that when the cluster of cells in the reticular activating system (regulating tiredness) slows the activity of the brain, there can be “glitches”. Though there are 5 standard stages of sleep with the frequency of brainwaves decreasing, this process is more complex within time and space.

It depends on the subtle dynamics of brain regions: the occipital lobe contains the visual cortex so one may observe shapes and images, but during hallucinations the frontal lobe is ‘off’. Therefore, one would lack understanding of these visions nor be able to interact with them. Shapes may vary between individuals but “phosphenes”, which are speckles of light, are commonly reported (what you can see if you place enough pressure on your eye when shut).


Hypnagogic images can be less abstract and random: research into the “the Tetris effect” found that the repeated images after playing the game Tetris for two hours could remain somewhat imprinted and re-emerge before sleep. This occurred in all novices within the experiment, implying the brain was processing the learning, compared to only half of the experts. Experts also reported seeing the older Nintendo version, highlighting the integration of experience and new memories. Fascinatingly, this could be unrelated to declarative memory as even amnesiacs unable to remember whether they had played the game reported the characteristic blocks of shape. In a more multimodal form, skiers also reported feeling the sensation of snow around their feet.

Combinations of sensory experiences create more immersive hallucinations. Auditory variations include hearing conversations but not understanding the words, random music, white noise and in more extreme cases, “Exploding Head Syndrome” (EHS). This is an alarming combination of loud imagined sounds and a “hypnic jerk”, a common experience where you are jolted awake. Up to 18% of students surveyed reported this, however “this is unrepresentative of true prevalence as students are prone to lack of sleep.” (wow, way to call me out). Though scary, once understood, sufferers can just be irritated by the interruption and go back to sleep.  

Kinaesthetic experiences are more likely during the transition from faster alpha waves to slower delta waves within the prefrontal cortex, where you can imagine motor actions. Other more terrifying reports include feeling frozen and dazzled, something pushing on your chest and even a jolt of electricity. In this minority of cases, rather than a pseudo-hallucination with a passive viewer, some experience a full hallucination that they wrongly believe to be real. This potentially explains some alien abduction experiences and supernatural encounters.

Becoming self-aware and lucid during these hallucinations may unlock previously untapped creative potential, certainly according to Salvador Dali, who recommended “the slumber with a key.” This process was both named metaphorically and literally; he suggested that artists should nap while lightly holding a metal key and observe the images within the hypnagogic stupor. Then as sleep paralysis sets in, the artist would drop the key and wake themselves, and presumably hurriedly scribble what their unrestrained mind had shown them.

Pioneers of Gothic literature have written of similar sources of inspiration like Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley who said: “I saw with eyes shut but acute vision”. Even Charles Dickens wrote a passage in Oliver Twist that beautifully encompasses the “passing visionary scenes”. Observing the mind when it is more fluid and hyperassociative is thought to help introduce unusual intuitive associations that may be lost when one is awake and logical. For instance, in 1865 August Kekule spoke of seeing a snake biting its tail, the mythical symbol of the ouroboros in a dream, thus inspiring him to consider benzene are a ring shape. If true, this story would prove a prime example of hypnagogic inspiration (though Wotiz’ insight into his paperwork may prove otherwise)

It is important to note that in most cases, hypnagogic experiences are benign though more common in people with a tendency to sleep less deeply. Oliver Sacks wrote a lot about destigmatising hallucinations; not necessarily looking to them for deeper meaning but acknowledging that they don’t necessarily indicate an unhealthy mind. So next time you see strange lights on the way to the land of nod, just enjoy the show.  

Extra information:

For those who wish to attempt this inspiration napping, the article can be found here with instructions for the ‘Upright Napping Procedure’ by Nielsen, using the physical action of nodding off to reawaken.

Turn to page 398 to read the passage in Oliver Twist that sounds remarkably hypnagogic

Comprehensive critique to Kekule’s dream claim:







The Science of Racism by Keerthana Balamurugan

In today’s ever-growing media, acts of racism in both an average man’s life and in multi-million-dollar corporations do not go unnoticed. Rarely do such incidents slip by without spreading the story like wildfire, creating an uproar of opinions from both sides. Instant slander is felt by such companies and thus, in most cases, public statements are released trying to fix the wrongs that have occurred. Talk about race and racism itself has built a reputation over centuries through cultural exploitation and due to this, certain stereotypes have been formed that are now hard to erase. Predetermined opinions are formed and there is very little we can do to fix this. Can racism be removed just like that?

When two black men arrived for a business meeting in a Philadelphia Starbucks coffee shop and asked to use the bathroom without buying anything, they were consequently harshly handcuffed. It was to no surprise that this news quickly reached the ears of millions. This begs the question of whether the same course of action would have occurred were it to be two white men instead or a group of teenage girls sharing a chai latte. The public uproar was hard to shut down hence, the CEO of the company decided to close all of its shops in the US and give its 175,000 employees a much-needed racial bias training. This training included pairing up employees and asking them to talk about how different they are to one another. People were sceptical that a few weeks of training would actually remove bias to a substantial extent.

Changing someone’s mind about a topic especially with thoughts or stereotypes that have been reinforced for years is a hard task to undertake. One sitting hardly has an effect. Through long-term training with the self-desire to change and constant checks, it comes closer to become a more realistic goal. The training all starts with accepting and being aware of the problem at hand but there is worry about such training being counterproductive. What is supposed to remove implicit bias could do just the opposite and fortify the thoughts. A study was conducted in Cornell University that when suggesting implicit bias is everywhere this normalises the thought and hence, normalises the prejudice.

There have been stories of success where the researches at the University of Wisconsin proved that through specific steps racial bias could be drastically improved. Such steps include observing how stereotypes arise and mentally replacing them. Also, understanding a person’s behaviour through situational explanations.

Let us look at the science behind it, where this prejudice actually stems from. One of our brain’s main function is to protect us, to weed out dangers felt and seen and thus, thwart it. Way back when, we needed this subconscious to pull us out of danger but now in our more civilised times, this has come to become a problem. Our brain has inherited the tendency to label something dangerous when in reality it is harmless. Much research has been conducted that supports this theory but other research proves that we have the ability to control our implicit bias. There is a part of our brain in the amygdala which forces us to form impressions of others and helps us consider their perspectives. We have the ability to overcome initial bias with facts and taking into account of social contexts.

There are other arguments stating that prejudice is not something we’re born with but something that is learnt throughout life, especially in adolescence. Research from a professor of psychology in California suggests that initial bias is not innate but one that is developed. Hence, it is proven that with more exposure to diversity the more we can reduce our prejudice.

With today’s incredibly diverse social media, there is more exposure than ever. Also, more cases of prejudice do not go silenced. Not only do we know this but research has also proved that prejudice-based discrimination exists and that we can overcome it with training and the want to change. What we do with this information is now up to us.


#WCW Marie M Daly by Martha Lavelle

1947 was an important year for science – Dr. Marie Maynard Daly became the first African-American woman to hold a PhD in chemistry. Daly was born in New York in 1921 and from a young age her interest in science was encouraged by her father. He was a fellow chemistry-lover and even enrolled to study it at Cornell University, but unfortunately hadn’t been able to finish the course due to lack of finances and discrimination. Marie recounted to Contemporary Black Biography how he had “wanted to become a scientist but there weren’t opportunities for him as a black man at that time”.

Luckily he passed the baton to his daughter and she went from success to success: enrolling at Queens College; graduating with the highest honours; and taking only one year to complete her Master’s whilst also working as a laboratory assistant at the University. Another significant woman in this story is Dr. Mary Caldwell from Columbia University, the University’s first female assistant professor. Marie worked in Mary’s lab for her PhD and undertook research into pancreatic amylase. This research entailed learning how different compounds were made and functioned in digestion.

Her career then took her into further research into aspects of public health, from smoking to high cholesterol. She pinpoints the highlight of her career as her time at the Rockefeller Institute of Medicine where she blazed the trail as the sole black scientist working there. Here she worked on elucidating the role of histones, the foundations of the newer field of epigenetics and furthering our understanding of protein synthesis control.

Daly wanted to use her success to help others in her position and in 1988 she opened a scholarship at Queen’s for minority students who aspired to study physical sciences as she and her father had done. Her retirement took her to Sarasota, Florida with her husband and she continued to focus her interest on the intricacies of the natural world, swapping chemistry for gardening. She was also very musical, devoted to playing the flute, when cancer interfered with this ability, she learned to play the guitar instead. She had a huge impact on encouraging women like her to pursue science, and with these talents is similar to Mae Jemison, who also pursued other hobbies with excellence outside of her own field.



How sleep deprivation can help with severe depression by Aleya Menon

The discussion surrounding mental health has broadened in the last few years with more becoming more aware of the issues and how to prevent them. It’s reported that 1 in 6 people in England experience common mental health problems; students are all too familiar with the mental toll of exams, assignments, and the struggle of a balanced lifestyle. In these cases, it’s advised to eat well, exercise, and most importantly sleep well, so the use of sleep deprivation, or “wake therapy”, seems paradoxical.

Even with the availability of many new drugs and therapies to help those cope with mental illness, these may prove ineffective. In these cases neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and therapists seek for innovative ways to fill in the gap where antidepressants and behavioural therapies fail. Depression linked to bipolar disorder is one such illness that antidepressants either cannot aid or they may quickly become ineffective, and so other methods are needed to provide the “antidepressant effect”. It just so happens that wake therapy can provide that effect.

First recorded in experiments by Burkhard Pflug in 1976, single-night sleep deprivation on 124 depressive patients yielded therapeutic results. In 16 of 45 patients with clinical depression, the single night was reportedly enough to alleviate their symptoms. Similar effectiveness was reported in those with bipolar disorder, while the opposite effect was seen in schizophrenic patients – so like all treatments, wake therapy has its limits.

In recent practice, wake therapy is used in conjunction with lithium (a common drug used to treat bipolar disorder) to prolong the effects of the sleep deprivation, proving effective for 65% of psychiatrist Francesco Benedetti’s patients. Finding that even short naps could reduce the effectiveness of the treatment, Benedetti found bright lights used to keep pilots awake could do the same to patients and thus extend the effects of wake therapy. He called this method “triple chronotherapy”. In 1996, Benedetti introduced the therapy into San Raffaele Hospital, and since then has treated around 1000 patients with bipolar depression who did not respond to antidepressants or become tolerant to them. The most recent data showed over 70% of patients responded to triple chronotherapy in the first week and 55% had a sustained response.

But why does this work? The answer lies in your circadian rhythm – the regular time cycle controlled by the hypothalamus in your brain and vital in regulating your sleep-wake cycle among other functions.

Light is a powerful external indicator for a human’s sleep/wake cycle so the bright light method is effective because the retinas of your eyes picks up the brightness and send signals to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus equates this brightness to the day time and signals to keep you awake, specifically by reducing the sleep hormone “melatonin” in your body. Circadian processes can directly affect mood in healthy people therefore in cases of depression, the shift can exacerbate the existing condition. In fact, the most reported disturbance in patients with depression is due to the sleep-wake cycle, as 90% of sufferers complain of difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and waking up.

The link between your circadian rhythm, wake therapy, and depression isn’t yet clear but suggestions have been proposed. For example, the “Phase-Shift” hypothesis is a result from a

delay or advance in signalling from the hypothalamus (central regulator) and can alter your sleep cycle negatively compared to the other cycles in your body that contribute to the circadian rhythm. The cycles can be re-synchronised using wake therapy and bright lights to control when the melatonin (sleep hormone) is released.

For severely depressed patients, the disruption of the sleep/wake cycle is significantly greater. Normalising the cycles is thought to be the key to improving the symptoms, and with more research it could be found that this is the case. If so, the link between depressive symptoms and the disruption of the circadian rhythm can be substantiated. It should be stressed that this method is useful for those with very severe forms of depressions, using wake therapy with milder depression and other conditions may have the opposite effect and worsen symptoms.

The seemingly contradictory nature of wake therapy is an interesting observation of how greatly conditions like depression can affect you by causing a ripple within your internal systems. As research continues we can gain a better understanding of the mechanisms that govern the effectiveness of wake therapy and take a big step forward in understanding treatments for complex mental illnesses.