HCEO met with HI network member Erin Hanlon to discuss her work studying sleep and the interplay between circadian and reward systems. Her background is in neuroscience and, as such, her research began with rat models. When she came to The University of Chicago in 2010, she started working on a human model.

"I came here because we’re able to examine these systems over multiple days. Here we can look at 24-hour profiles of different hormones and peptides that modulate feeding behavior and reward systems, and we can look at them simultaneously while looking at sleep characteristics," she says. 

Previous research, she notes, has shown that there is an association between short sleep, or sleep deficiency, and an increased risk of obesity and diabetes. These lab experiments help to explain that association. "Our own studies have begun to show, not only do people report feeling hungrier, they’re actually eating more in a state of sleep restriction," she says. "This is a way we start to tease apart the interplay between sleep restriction and the increased risk of obesity."

These issues have also been shown to disproportionately effect certain demographics. "In regards to health disparities, we know that, specifically speaking of sleep, there are disparities in, not only sleep architecture, but also sleep quality. So people with a lower socioeconomic status will have poorer sleep quality, maybe due to higher stress, might be due to noise in the neighborhood, might be due to working multiple jobs," Hanlon says. "We also know that different ethnicities have different sleep architecture." She points out that these sleep disparities in turn lead to a variety of negative outcomes.

Overall, Hanlon is glad that circadian studies are gaining more prominence, and that sleep's importance to overall health is becoming part of the national discourse. She points out the availability of nap rooms at companies like Google and the Huffington Post. 

"The fact that culturally we’re starting to recognize sleep as an important factor for maintaining good health, I think is quite important," she says. "The narrative regarding sleep is moving in the right direction."

Hanlon is a Research Assistant Professor in the Section of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism at The University of Chicago.