Integrative physiology Professor Ken Wright is breaking new ground in the burgeoning field of sleep research and bringing his students along for the ride, all of which has won him the Mary A. Carskadon Outstanding Educator Award
Ken Wright was a research fellow studying sleep and circadian rhythm at Harvard Medical School in the late ‘90s when he read a paper that set his career on a groundbreaking new path.
“At the time, people assumed that sleep was strictly by the brain and for the brain,” recalls Wright, now a professor of distinction in the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The seminal paper, by University of Chicago Professor Eve Van Cauter, suggested for the first time that sleep disruption could do far more than make us feel groggy and confused: It could also disrupt hormones, potentially fueling diseases like obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Wright saw an opening.
“I could see that this field was about to explode,” he recalls.
Two decades later, Wright has worked with undergraduate and graduate students to publish more than 140 papers elucidating how sleep, and lack thereof, affect everything from our appetite to how we metabolize fat and sugar to which microorganisms live inside our guts. His myriad human studies, conducted in the Sleep and Chronobiology Lab on campus, have shed light on what people can and shouldn’t do to try to normalize their internal body clock.
And his team’s discoveries are now paving the way toward a future in which, along with having their blood tested for cholesterol levels at the doctor’s office, patients might also get a test assessing whether they are natural night owls or morning larks and personalized prescriptions for how to better time their lives.
In June, the Sleep Research Society will honor Wright with its Mary A. Carskadon Outstanding Educator Award for excellence in education, acknowledging his work as both a mentor to university students and a messenger to the public about the power of sleep.
“I don’t know anyone who has as much on his plate as he does, but he still makes time to mentor his students and really thrives on seeing them succeed,” said Cammie Mitchell (IPHY ’21) who did her undergraduate honors thesis in Wright’s lab and intends to go to medical school.
The risk of all-nighters and the power of camping
For his research, Wright collaborates with colleagues at the Anschutz Medical campus for a host of unusual experiments in which subjects’ meals, light exposure, activity and sleep patterns are tightly controlled – sometimes for several days.
One study, published in PNAS in 2018, showed that pulling an all-nighter just once—as we do when we work a night shift, fly internationally or stay up studying—can disrupt levels and time- of-day patterns of more than 100 proteins in the blood, including those that influence blood sugar, energy metabolism and immune function.
Another found that burning the candle all week and trying to “catch up on sleep” on the weekend not only doesn’t work well, but could actually worsen metabolic health in some ways.
The good news, particularly for Coloradans with access to great wilderness locales: Wright’s research shows that one easy way to recalibrate an off-kilter body clock, or circadian rhythm, is to go camping. It found that volunteers who hit the woods for a week in the summer were exposed to far more light by day and far less light by night than usual. When they returned to civilization, their internal clocks had shifted, with the sleep promoting hormone melatonin kicking in nearly two hours earlier at night and waning earlier in the morning, prompting them to wake up earlier and more refreshed.
“Living in our modern environments can significantly delay our circadian timing, and late circadian timing is associated with many health consequences,” Wright said. “But our research showed as little as a weekend camping trip can reset it.”
Wright notes that people’s natural circadian rhythm, or “chronotype” varies, with some naturally rising earlier and going to sleep earlier, while others tend to stay up later, and others falling somewhere in between. Emerging research suggests that timing our activity, meals and even medications around these differing ebbs and flows could lead to better health. But unlike with cholesterol and hormones, there is no blood test for chronotype yet.
He and his students are working on that too.
“If we want to be able to fix the timing of a person’s circadian rhythm, we need to know what that timing is,” said Wright. “Right now, we do not have an easy way to do that, but our research shows it can be done.”
Paying it forward
Christopher Depner worked with Wright on numerous studies as a postdoctoral fellow at CU Boulder and credits him with inspiring him to chart a similar career course.
He’s now an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Kinesiology at the University of Utah, has his own lab and is “paying it forward” with his own students.
“The research environment Ken has created there provides truly unique opportunities to gain hands-on experience conducting large-scale clinical research,” said Depner. “There are truly only a few places in the world where students have such an opportunity.”
In addition to educating his students, Wright also makes a point of speaking publicly and with media regularly about what he and his colleagues are learning.
“We know now that insufficient sleep contributes to all the major health problems, from obesity and Type 2 diabetes to heart disease, cancer and neurodegenerative disorders. But the reality is, not everyone is going to read our papers,” he says. “I think we have a responsibility as scientists to help educate the public about what we are finding out.”
Wright will receive his award at the SLEEP 2022 Conference June 4 to 8 in Charlotte, North Carolina.