Of Mice and Men...And Sleep - Bruce O’Hara and Colleagues Receive an NIH Grant

By Victoria Dekle

Professor Bruce O’Hara in the Department of Biology is interested in the overall quality of your sleep. In his research laboratory in the Thomas Hunt Morgan Building, O’Hara investigates sleep patterns and circadian rhythms within the brain.

Not all of his test subjects, however, are human.

Mice are a common organism used in many experimental laboratories, but O’Hara and two University of Kentucky colleagues have developed some new methods to expedite the research process and to provide a more humane data collection process.

O’Hara, Professor Kevin Donohue in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Assistant Professor Sridhar Sunderam in the Department of Biomedical Engineering recently received a grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) to further develop and expand this technology that can be used to better understand sleep, and also help develop better drugs and other treatments for sleep disorders.

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The NIH grant was awarded through the Small Business Innovative Research program named “Lab to Marketplace: Tools for Brain and Behavior Research.”

O’Hara and Donohue founded their small business, Signal Solutions LLC, in 2009. “We decided to form a company to help disseminate this technology and also to make a variety of improvements in the system.”

“A major limitation in all studies of sleep in mice, or any mammal,” O’Hara explained, “is the difficulty of performing EEG/EMG analyses. In mice, this requires extensive surgery, recovery, cabling of animals, and considerable time for signal analyses.”

O’Hara and colleagues asked themselves if there was another way to obtain this data.

“We developed a non-invasive, high-throughput alternative using a piezoelectric film attached to the floor of a mouse cage, which functions as an exquisitely sensitive motion detector including subtle changes in respiration during sleep,” he explained. O’Hara and Donohue began their initial collaboration in 2004, with O’Hara providing the biological expertise and Donohue the expertise in hardware and software design that allowed the piezo signals to be classified as sleep vs. wake in real time. Later, Sunderam joined this effort with a focus on distinguishing REM vs. nonREM sleep and other applications of the technology to neurological disorders such as epilepsy, which has led to this current NIH award.

The sizeable NIH grant will benefit more than the mice on campus. The funds from the grant will permit O’Hara, Donohue, and Sunderam to fund more students and hire staff in their respective laboratories.

O’Hara added, “It will also help to expand our company and provide employment and other economic benefits to Lexington and surrounding areas.”

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