Carter discusses the neuroscience of a good night’s sleep

Professor Matt Carter, who presented a lecture on Oct. 30, conducts research on the neuroscience of sleep. Photo courtesy of Whitman College.
Professor Matt Carter, who presented a lecture on Oct. 30, conducts research on the neuroscience of sleep. Photo courtesy of Whitman College.

On Oct. 30, Professor of Biology Matt Carter presented this semester’s Sigma Xi lecture, “The Neuroscience Behind a Good Night’s Sleep.”

In addition to honoring graduating seniors for their scientific research, the College’s Sigma Xi Chapter, which was founded as a club in 1969, hosts a single or double lecture by a science professor each semester.

The College’s Sigma Xi Chapter President Jay Pasachoff, chair of the astronomy department, said that although Sigma Xi sponsors national lecturers, local professors usually give these biannual talks. Pasachoff and the Sigma Xi Chapter Secretary/Treasurer Lois Banta jointly decide each semester’s lecturer based on feedback from other professors and science departments.

“We decided to choose Professor Carter as the Sigma Xi lecturer for this fall because somebody told me that he was an especially good lecturer,” Pasachoff said. “We are glad that he accepted.”

Carter, who currently teaches neuroscience and physiology at Williams, received a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Stanford University. He researched food intake as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington before coming to Williams in 2013.

At the lecture, Carter presented some of his graduate and current research on sleep deprivation and sleep fragmentation.

“I chose this topic because I’m interested in these behaviors that animals instinctually do – you don’t have to teach an animal to sleep,” Carter said. “The brain requires you to be unconscious for a few hours over a 24-hour cycle, and neurons have to sense this and try to convince you to sleep.”

In his lecture, Carter addressed three topics: the definition of sleep, the mechanisms of sleep regulation and how people may improve their sleeping habits.

In order to provide a quantitative definition of sleep, Carter presented an electroencephalography (EEG) graph, which measures the activity of neurons in the brain during awake and sleep states.

“Just like a microphone over Times Square on New Year’s Eve would pick up a million different conversations, the EEG picks up the chatter of a million different neurons,” Carter said. “It’s useful because sometimes those voices will synchronize, and this synchronization serves to differentiate between different brain states.”

Throughout the lecture, Carter stressed the importance of sleep quality and quantity.

“If, for example, you are three hours short of sleep on a Monday, and you get enough sleep on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, your brain will still be feeling the effects of sleep deprivation on Friday,” he said.

Carter also highlighted the deleterious effects of sleep debt, which he defined as the accumulation of multiple instances of sleep deprivation.

“For someone who has accumulated sleep debt, it’s hard to remember things, you get sick easier, your muscles start to waste away and your body starts to accumulate fat,” he said. “If you’re missing out on sleep, you don’t get the benefits of all these physiological processes.”

Carter chose this particular lecture subject because he believes that “a good night’s sleep” is a very relevant topic for the College community and especially for students who often stay up late studying and wake up early for class.

“I realize that giving a talk two thirds of the way through a semester on a Thursday afternoon about sleep and sleep deprivation is kind of an ambitious thing to do,” he said.

But Carter added, “I don’t think people realize how much better they could be during the day if they slept a little bit more at night.”

The lecture, held in Wege Auditorium, garnered a large audience and left some listeners without seats in the auditorium. According to Pasachoff, the large audience did not come as a surprise.

“It has been tradition that we get a wide turnout for Sigma Xi lectures,” he said.