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Sleep

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Sophia Zhukovsky, a Stony Brook University sophomore and Ward Melville High School graduate, addresses the school board Sept. 18. Photo by Andrea Paldy

By Andrea Paldy

Activism is strong in Three Village.

At the Sept. 18 Three Village school board meeting, parents, students and alumni came out in support of an issue that has concerned many members of the community: school start times.

“It’s very strenuous to strive for academic and personal success on half the medically recommended sleep time for people my age.”

Sophia Zhukovsky

Earlier in the month, the board heard from parents in favor of later start times for the district’s three secondary schools. Last week, the board heard from Ward Melville graduates and students, themselves.

“Sleep deprivation does not have to be a part of Ward Melville culture,” said Sophia Zhukovsky, a sophomore at Stony Brook University and a Ward Melville graduate.

“Ward Melville has a great deal of high-achieving, dedicated and bright students, but it also has a great deal of exhausted students,” she said. “It’s very strenuous to strive for academic and personal success on half the medically recommended sleep time for people my age.”

Student and parent speakers echoed Zhukovsky’s sentiments. They described mornings as a “time of family anxiety and stress” and shared personal stories about the impact of sleep deprivation on family time and emotional health.

“Even 30 minutes would do a lot for students at the school in terms of both mental health and for fostering community,” wrote Kirti Nath, 2017 Ward Melville valedictorian. Nath couldn’t attend the meeting, but her letter was read to the board by high school student Natalia Newton.

“Ward Melville is undeniably one of the best public high schools that I know of, and I am incredibly grateful to have gotten my start there,” said Nath, a University of Pennsylvania sophomore. “I write this because I think that the Ward Melville experience can be even better.”

Annemarie Waugh, a local artist, P.J. Gelinas parent and founder of Sidewalks For Safety, said allowing students more time to sleep would “level the playing field” both athletically and academically. She added yet another concern.

“The system now encourages inexperienced teenage drivers to be driving in the dark at the same time other students are waiting on busy roads with no sidewalks in the dark,” she said. “This arrangement doubles the risk of tragedy.”

In addition to drawing even more supporters than the previous board meeting, the It’s About Time: Three Village Parents For A Later School Start Time movement gathered more than 1,400 signatures in a little more than a week.

But breaking through the chorus of support for a later secondary start time was Vincent Sperandeo, a parent of Ward Melville graduates. “Changing us would also mean that other districts would have to change as well,” he said.

He pointed out that Ward Melville was within the range of start times for surrounding school districts and changing Three Village’s junior high and high school start times would have to be done “in coordination with other districts.”

While Ward Melville starts at 7:05 am, nearby districts range in start time from the 7:02 a.m. warning bell at Miller Place High School to 7:10 a.m. at Comsewogue High School, 7:20 a.m. in Smithtown and 7:30 a.m. in Commack, Port Jefferson and Mount Sinai.

“The real world out there is not starting at 9 o’clock,” Sperandeo said. “The real world out there is starting when your job is telling you to start.”

Although districts in the immediate area have start times well before 8 a.m., schools across the nation have been taking a serious look at delaying start times.  Ever since the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended in 2014 that secondary schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m., attention to the issue has grown. The State of California has even gone so far as to propose a bill pushing back start times for all of its secondary schools.

According to research, biological changes in the adolescent circadian rhythms make it difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. Waking up to catch an early bus interrupts the later part of their sleep cycle, preventing them from getting the recommended 8 to 10 hours of sleep their developing bodies and brains need.

Researchers at Seattle’s University of Washington and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, found that students at two Seattle high schools that changed to later start times got more sleep during the week, had fewer tardies and absences in their first period classes and had improved academic performance.

“Changing us would also mean that other districts would have to change as well.”

— Vincent Sperandeo

Despite the abundance of information favoring later start times, most U.S. high schools start before 8:30 a.m., and some schools that considered change decided against it because of logistics.

That’s why Barbara Rosati, founder of It’s About Time, has suggested that Three Village officials attend the Adolescent Health and School Start Times Workshop, in Pennsylvania, which would cover the “science, strategies, logistics and tips” for making a shift.

The Nov. 13 workshop is already full. However, the website indicated that the organizer — the national group, Start School Later — was considering a second session.

Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich, who described the research on later start times as “cogent, valid and reliable,” said last week that the district would begin phase 1 of its investigation into the shift. This would mean “data gathering” so that there could be “meaningful conversation,” she said.

This process, the superintendent said, would include surveys of parents, staff and students, as well as conversations with districts that have made the time change and those that considered it, but decided against it. Pedisich estimated that if the board moved forward with a committee, it would take shape in January.

“The last thing in the world we want to do is give the impression that we’re not listening,” said board president William Connors during a telephone interview. “Fourteen hundred signatures is compelling and shows we have to listen and do our due diligence.”

But there are also a lot of factors to consider, he added, such as the “domino” effect on other grades and the fact that a shift could cost the district “literally millions of dollars” in additional transportation costs.

“I don’t like the idea of kids getting up at 5 in the morning, but we have to look at the alternatives and establish our priorities,” Connors said.

Sleep researchers say students who get even 30 minutes more sleep a night will see huge effects on overall performance. Stock photo

By Kyle Barr and Rita J. Egan

Come September, middle and high school students across the North Shore will wake up to the harsh sound of alarms, sometimes hours before the sun will rise.

Some will wake up late, and rush in and out of the shower, sometimes not having time to eat before they make it to the bus stop, often in the dark where the cicadas continue to buzz and the crickets chirp.

Port Jefferson high schoolers will shuffle through the front doors before 7:20 a.m. Students at Ward Melville High School will hear the first bell at 7:05, while Comsewogue students will be in their seats at 7:10.

Some scientists across the North Shore have said that needs to change.

The science

Brendan Duffy has worked in St. Charles Hospital’s Sleep Disorders Center for nearly a decade, coming out of working at Stony Brook University as a sleep technician. As he worked in the field, he started seeing significant connections between the effectiveness of individuals during the day and how much sleep they got the night before. For teens, he said, the importance is all the greater. Sleep, he said, has a direct impact on risk-taking versus making smart choices, potential drug use, obesity and depression.

“The science is irrefutable,” he said. “Basically, anything you do, whether it’s mentally or physically — it doesn’t directly cause [these harmful decisions], but there’s connections and links.”

While some parents would simply tell their kids to get off their phone or computer and go to bed, scientists have said the bodies of young people, specifically teenagers, have internal clocks that are essentially set two hours back. Even if a young person tries to fall asleep at 9 p.m., he or she will struggle to slumber. Duffy said scientists call it the delayed sleep phase, and it directly affects the timing of the body’s melatonin production.

During sleep, the body enters what’s called “recovery processes,” which will regulate certain hormones in the brain and effectively flush all waste products from daily brain activity. Without enough sleep, these processes do not have time to work.

“The science is irrefutable.”

— Brendan Duffy

That is not to mention rapid eye movement sleep. REM sleep is a period during the night where heart rate and breathing quickens, and dreams become more intense. Lauren Hale, a sleep researcher and professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University, called this period critical to sleep. The longest period of REM happens in the latest part of the sleep cycle, the one deprived by waking up early. 

“For decades, scientists have known young people are sleep deprived,” she said. “It’s not that they can get by on six or seven hours of sleep … teenagers are the most at risk of not getting the sleep they need.”

Of course, it is not to say modern technology has not affected young people. Duffy said phones and computers have meant the brain is never given time to rest. Even in downtime, minds are constantly active, whether it’s playing video games or simply scrolling through Facebook.

“They’re not given a break,” Duffy said. “Their brains are constantly processing, processing, processing.”

Sleep and sports

“I looked at all the school athletic programs that have been decimated by changing their start times, and I couldn’t find anything,” Duffy added. “It’s hard for athletes to perform or recover if they’re not sleeping well at the high school level.”

In research, college football teams looked at which kids were likely to be injured, and those who received less than eight hours of sleep were 70 percent more likely to be injured, according to Duffy.

That research led him to find Start School Later, a nonprofit national advocacy group to change the minimum school start time to 8:30 a.m., at a minimum. Duffy communicated with the nonprofit to provide data on the effect lack of sleep has on players. He has become its athletic liaison.

He points to professional sports teams, many of which have sleep professionals whose jobs are to set sleep schedules for their players and help reach peak effectiveness.

History of sleep and schools

Dr. Max Van Gilder is a retired pediatrician and coordinator for the New York branch of Start School Later. He said that while most schools traditionally started at 9 a.m. for most of the 20th century, the move toward earlier start times was relatively recent, only beginning around 1975 with busing consolidation. Schools started doing multiple bus runs for different grade levels, and high school students would be the first ones on these routes.

For decades, the early start became more and more established. Start School Later was created little more than a decade ago, but it’s only recently that some states have started to try later times.

In 2016, Seattle passed a law moving start times from 7:50 to 8:45 a.m. A study of the effects of that change showed students got an average of 34 more minutes of sleep a day or several hours over the course of the week. It also showed an improvement in grades and a reduction in tardiness. The study gave examples that in some classes average grades were up 4.5 points more than previous classes at the earlier start times.

“We need to work with the superintendents.”

— Max Von Gilder

In California, a bill that would have moved minimum start times to 8:30 a.m. was supported by both houses of the state Legislature before being vetoed by the governor last year. A similar bill is currently going through the legislative process again. Other states like Virginia and New Jersey have started to experiment with later start times.

On Long Island, very few districts have made significant increases in start times. Van Gilder said two-thirds of the high schools in New York state (excluding NYC) start before 8 a.m., with an average start time around 7:45. Only 2 percent of high schools start after the recommended time of 8:30, according to him.

The main difficulty of encouraging later start times is due to districts being so largely independent from both the state and each other. While this gives each district particular freedoms, it also means cooperation is that much harder. A district that changes start times would have to renegotiate with bus companies and find ways to navigate scheduling sports games between schools with different start times.

“The state constitution makes it very difficult for the State of New York to pass a law to say when you can start,” Van Gilder said. “We need to work with the superintendents.”

However, proponents of late start said the benefits easily outweigh the negatives.

“There are ways around it and, to me, this is a strong evidence base for opportunity to improve adolescent medical health, physical health, academic outcomes, safer driving — there is such a positive range of outcomes,” said Hale of SBU.

Parents working together

In the Three Village Central School District, more than two dozen parents filled a meeting room in Emma S. Clark Memorial Library Aug. 23. Barbara Rosati, whose daughter is an eighth-grader in P.J. Gelinas Junior High School, organized the meeting to discuss the benefits of teenagers starting school later in the day.

Rosati, a research assistant professor at SBU’s Renaissance School of Medicine in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, said during conversations with Van Gilder she discovered there are only four high schools in New York that begin school as early or earlier than Ward Melville’s 7:05 start time. Because of their internal clocks, she described the teenagers as constantly being jet lagged.

“Older kids — adolescents, high schoolers, junior high school students — for them it’s much more difficult to get up early in the morning, and this has a physiological
basis,” Rosati said.

The goal of the Aug. 23 meeting was to go over studies, create an action plan and then put that plan into motion. The professor pointed toward the studies that show teenagers who are sleep deprived can be more susceptible to mood swings and drowsiness, and it can affect academic and athletic performance as well as cause long-term health problems such as anxiety, diabetes, eating disorders and cardiovascular problems.

“We’re spending a lot of money in this district to make our schools better and improve their performance, and then we undermine the kids with things like sleep deprivation,” Rosati said. “We undermine not only their health but academic performance.”

“We’re doing this because we care about our children’s mental health and academic achievement.”

— Barbara Rosati

Parents at the meeting agreed they need to be sympathetic to the school board, and Rosati added that she believed, based on prior experience, that the board would be willing to help.

“We have to show them our support, and at the same time we have to make sure they are willing to do this and feel committed to such an effort, because this is not something that you do halfheartedly,” she said.

Frances Hanlon, who has a sixth-grade student in Setauket Elementary School, agreed that the parents can work with the board trustees and that it wasn’t an us-versus-them issue.

“We can’t be, ‘We know better than you and why aren’t you?’” Hanlon said. “We all have to work on this together and that’s what’s going to make a change.”

Rosati and those in attendance are set to survey how many families are in the district and, when the school year begins, will start a petition for those in favor of late start times to sign.

Among the suggestions parents had were bringing the late school start presentation that Rosati created to the school board and PTA meetings throughout the district, with further plans to record and send it by email to parents. One mother also suggested that high school students join the parents at BOE meetings. Rosati said she would also like to have experts such as Van Gilder and Hale present a talk for the board trustees.

“We can use the help of these professionals to inform the board that there is really solid scientific evidence, and we’re not just doing this because we’re lazy and don’t want to get up early in the morning,” Rosati said. “We’re doing this because we care about our children’s mental health and academic achievement.”

Reaction from districts

Both of Duffy’s kids are already graduates of the Port Jefferson School District, and he has yet to present in front of the school board, saying he wants to gain more traction in the community before bringing it to school officials. He has been trying to get support through posts on social media.

“It really can’t come just from me, it has to come from the community,” he said.

Though Hale has gone in front of school boards at Shoreham-Wading River and a committee in Smithtown, she lives in Northport and has two young girls at elementary school level. She has also written editorials in scientific journals about the topic.

When Rosati attended a Three Village board of education meeting in June, she said a few trustees told her that starting high school later in the day could lead to eliminating some of the music programs while teams may not be able to compete against neighboring schools in sporting games.

After her appearance before the school board, she said she researched a number of schools on Long Island, including Jericho High School which starts at 9 a.m. and saw that they could still manage to have music programs and play schools at sports with different start times.

A statement from the Three Village School District said it had commissioned a lengthy discussion regarding school start times, but while it was in support of the research, it identified negative impacts to the athletic programs, transportation, BOCES offerings and elementary music.

“You don’t have to look hard to see the benefits of this.”

— Lauren Hale

 

The district said it also conducted an informal survey of a small portion of the student population, who said they were not in favor of later starts, but Three Village added it was only used to gather anecdotal information.

There are a few things parents can do to aid their child’s sleep beyond the later start. Rosati offered some tips, including regular bedtimes, providing balanced meals, curfew on screen times, and limiting extracurricular activities and the intake of sugar and caffeine in the evening hours. She and her husband have tried their best to follow those guidelines, but she said they still kept their daughter home multiple days due to sleep deprivation last academic year.

“We should not be put in the position to choose between education and health for our kids,” Rosati said.

When asked, Shoreham-Wading River, Port Jefferson and Northport school districts all said they were not currently looking into later
start times.

Still, Hale said despite her frustrations with the reaction from some districts she’s continuing to argue for later start times.

“We need to work together with communities so that parents and teachers and school board members understand this is for the benefit of the students and the community,” she said. “You don’t have to look hard to see the benefits of this.”

Rosati plans to host another meeting Sept. 10 at the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library in Setauket from 7:30 to 9 p.m.

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If you have had a particularly nasty fight with your spouse or best friend today, consider this. How well did each of you sleep last night?

It may not come as a surprise that a good night’s sleep makes one feel calm and good natured the next morning. But how many of us consider the ramifications of poor or too little sleep one night on our behavior and relationships the next day? We may feel out of sorts, perhaps below our awareness radar, and that can lead to more difficult and even acrimonious interactions with those at work, in our daily routines and especially with our spouses. Even worse, it may affect our health.

A study at Ohio State University of 43 couples and how their bickering could influence their health tracked the subjects spouses most often argue over: managing money, spending family time together or an in-law intruding on their lives. According to an article in The New York Times Science section, “Relationship Problems? Try Getting More Sleep” by Tara Parker-Pope, Sept. 4, the study revealed that some couples argue calmly, even constructively, while others were “hostile and negative.”

The difference? The hostile couples were likely not getting enough sleep, usually less than at least seven hours. So before you give up on a relationship, consider the sleep factor. With enough sleep, you will still have disagreements, but the tone of the conflicts will probably be more patient.

The Ohio State study goes further. It purports to measure how marital discord together with sleep deprivation can negatively affect a person’s health. The way the university measured for this possible toxic effect was by taking blood samples from both members of the couple before and after an argument. The samples measured the level of inflammation in the body because inflammatory proteins have been linked with heart disease, cancer and other health problems. The results showed that “marital discord is more toxic to your body when you haven’t gotten enough sleep.”

Interestingly, when one member of the couple got adequate sleep, it mitigated the negative tone of the conflict, even if the other member was sleep deprived. So that suggests “a half-a-loaf is better than none” conclusion.

The article goes on to reveal that some 25 percent of couples sleep in separate beds, presumably in order to get more undisturbed rest. “And when one relationship partner doesn’t sleep well, his or her partner is more likely to report poor health and well-being.”

In conclusion: “The lesson, say the study authors, is that before concluding a relationship is in trouble, couples who regularly experience conflict should take stock not only of the relationship and how they are managing conflict, but also of their sleep habits.” The study was published in the May edition of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, hardly most people’s bedtime reading but offering an article to better understand the universal need in a marriage for adequate sleep.

In addition to all the authoritative information above, I can offer another nugget in the advice for marrieds department. Mine is anecdotal, not academic. Disagreements don’t go well if one or both members of a couple are hungry. Hunger starts out as insidious rather than full blown, and so it is often hard to identify the mood change when in the midst of a difficult discussion or even in an idyllic setting. But hunger can forcibly affect one’s outlook and certainly one’s patience.

I found this to be particularly true with my husband. (I’m not making a gender specific allegation here, just sayin’.) We could be having a perfectly lovely time at the zoo or some other outing, and for no apparent reason, he would begin to get cranky. The level of his crankiness would rise as we continued to stroll. Fortunately I eventually figured it out and began to carry protein bars in my pocket. At the right moment, I would pull two out and offer him one. Within merely a couple of minutes, all was again right with the world.

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Superintendent James Grossane file photo

Smithtown high school students may soon be collectively rejoicing everywhere.

A committee assembled in 2015 to examine the pros and cons of moving back the start of the school day for ninth-  through 12th-grade students provided an update to the board of education, district administration and the community on their findings at a meeting Tuesday.

The School Start Times Steering Committee is comprised of district administrators, parents, students and teachers. District Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Jennifer Bradshaw led the discussion Tuesday. Bradshaw said the committee watched a New York State School Boards Association webinar about the Glen Falls City School District’s shift to a later start time a few years ago and the drastically positive impacts it has had on student behavior. They also consulted with the district’s athletic director, guidance counselors, parents and principals from other schools who have made the change for their input on the impact of a later start time.

“We have an obligation to look at this for our students,” Bradshaw said. Currently Smithtown’s high schools start first period at 7:20 a.m. “Physiologically, biologically they’re not ready to learn.”

Bradshaw quoted a recent press release from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that indicated two out of three high school students in the United States don’t get enough sleep.

Joanne Romanelli, a parent in the district who is on the start time committee and also works as a certified holistic health and wellness coach addressed the board during Tuesday’s meeting. She said that forcing teens to wake up as early as 6 a.m. creates a vicious cycle of stress, out-of-whack hormones and distorted sleeping patterns because their bodies cannot physically fall asleep before about 11:30 p.m.

“If you’re getting up earlier you’re feeling stress, you’re feeling tired, you’re not doing so well in school, you might be depressed or you have low serotonin,” Romanelli said. “There is more depression so now you’re feeling more stress. You’re having raised cortisol throughout the day. Raised cortisol makes you feel energized, it doesn’t make you feel sleepy. So now, you can’t go to sleep. So it causes more stress. It just cycles … A later start time is what’s best and it’s healthier for the students.”

School board members Louis Liguori and Joanne McEnroy said they’d like to see these updates fast-tracked from suggestions to a proposal and eventually a change because they’ve seen firsthand how difficult getting their teenagers out of bed really is.

“We pretty much have covered the gamut on all levels of educating children right down to nutritional changes that we have going on and [on a county and state level they’re] just not talking about, on a higher level, sleep deprivation or sleep patterns of our students,” Liguori said. “Who are we catering to? We’re not catering to the students at all by getting them up at 6 [a.m.].”

Some issues with pushing back the start of the high school day would include transportation, co-curricular athletics start times and changes to before and after care for elementary students if their times were affected.

Board member Jeremy Thode expressed concerns that if the high school day started later, kids would simply go to bed later and the problem would be shifted backward rather than alleviated.

“My concern as a parent and from an educational point of view is that we have some fool’s gold here in thinking they’re going to stay going to bed at 11 [p.m.] and now waking up at 9 [a.m.] or get up at 8 [a.m.], now they can stay up until 12 [a.m.], because kids are kids,” Thode said. “In an ideal world I think we’re talking about the right subject but there are some unintended consequences.”

Thode suggested that a next step could be to examine lateness patterns and grades for first and second period classes compared to the rest of the day for Smithtown high school students.

Bradshaw added she has been in contact with an organization called Start School Later Long Island, NY and that the best course of action may be for this to become a county or statewide discussion going forward. More discussion is likely to occur until the budget is adopted for the 2017-18 school year next spring.

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Professor Helen Benveniste. File photo from SBU

Sleeping doesn’t just provide a break from the daily grind, prevent you from chowing down on more Oreo cookies, or keep you out of trouble when it gets dark. It may also serve an important brain-cleaning function, getting rid of tau and beta amyloid proteins.

Merely shutting your eyes and letting the sandman sprinkle dust on your forehead may not be enough. You might actually help your brain, over the long term, with the way you sleep.

Helene Benveniste, a professor of anesthesiology and radiology and vice chair for research in the Department of Anesthesiology at Stony Brook University, recently conducted research on anesthetized rodents, tracking how the glymphatic system worked in various sleep positions. The animals were better at flushing tau and beta amyloid proteins from their brains when they slept laterally, or on their sides, than when they slept on their stomachs. Resting on their backs wasn’t as efficient as sleeping on their sides, although it was better than face down.

These proteins aren’t just a part of everyday maintenance. They likely play a role in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related neurological problems, Benveniste said.

Since Benveniste published her study in the Journal of Neuroscience in early August, she has received a flood of emails from around the world, including from Brazil, France and Colombia, with people asking about various sleep positions and neurological disorders.

The Stony Brook professor said it is too soon after this study to come to any conclusions about sleep or preventing cognitive disorders. For starters, she and a research team that included scientists at the University of Rochester, NYU Langone Medical Center and Stony Brook conducted the studies on animal models, rather than on humans.

“In general, the rodent is a pretty good model for core aspects of human brain function,” said Dennis Choi, the chairman of the Neurology Department at Stony Brook. The specifics, however, can differ from one species to another. As a result, Benveniste said, “I don’t think anybody should panic” about the way he or she sleeps.

Scientists know that in the glymphatic pathway, cerebrospinal fluid moves through the brain and exchanges with interstitial fluid to get rid of waste. In the studies with rodents, the face down position seemed to divert the cerebrospinal fluid away from the brain, Benveniste said.

The research could be another step toward understanding how sleep might help with the human glymphatic system.

An anesthesiologist who does clinical work one day a week, Benveniste said she started thinking about conducting this kind of study a few years ago. Benveniste is a “good example of a physician/scientist,” Choi said.

Two years ago, a study by a co-author on the paper, Maiken Nedergaard from the University of Rochester, showed that sleep or general anesthesia enhances the clearance of waste from the brain of rodents.

“Since I am an anesthesiologist, I immediately thought about how body/head positions during anesthesia might affect clearance,” Benveniste said. The data took over a year and a half to collect and analyze.

“The quantitative aspect of this system should not be overlooked. To find out how these [proteins] are moving through the brain is a huge issue,” she said. The collaboration with Jean Logan, senior research scientist in the Department of Radiology at NYU “enabled us to move forward.”

Benveniste used a dynamic contrast MRI method to calculate the exchange rates between the cerebrospinal fluid and the interstitial fluid. The next step in these studies is to move toward the human brain. Benveniste said she is working with colleagues at the National Institutes of Health.

Just from observing wildlife outside the lab, Benveniste said many animals tend to sleep in what she and her team found was the optimum position for clearing waste in rodents: on their sides. “Even elephants lie down in recumbent, lateral positions,” she added.

As for Benveniste, she said she naturally sleeps on her right side. She said she’s well aware of how well she slept during the night. If she wakes up after getting enough rest, she said she thinks, “this was a good night’s sleep. This was good for my brain.”

Benveniste, who lives in Northport with her husband, Peter Huttemeier, is also an advocate of exercise for brain health, although she doesn’t suggest marathon running. “I do think this may be affecting the cerebrospinal fluid flow dynamics,” she said, adding that she wants to take up yoga.

Benveniste is eager to continue to build on this sleep study. “The workings of this system so far has been an amazing exploratory adventure,” she said.