x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

How does Ramadan affect our sleep? UAE researchers find out

Scientists are conducting the first analysis of fasting and sleep to determine better sleeping and eating patterns to improve health.

Student Ali Farhat is researching ways to recharge ancient wells and manage water reservoirs. Lee Hoagland / The National
Student Ali Farhat is researching ways to recharge ancient wells and manage water reservoirs. Lee Hoagland / The National

ABU DHABI // How well do we sleep during Ramadan? How is sleep related to our social habits? Or our environment?

How can we detect serious illnesses before they are at an advanced stage? And how do we do this quickly?

How do we store and revive old water wells in a region known for its lack of water? How do we save water in times of emergency?

These are just some of the questions being researched by a group of scientists and their students inside specialised labs at Masdar Institute of Science and Technology. The answers could forever change how we cope with our demanding way of life.

"Sleep is the first thing to suffer and be cut as we struggle to keep up with our daily demands and pressures," says Dr Inas Khayal, assistant professor of the engineering systems and management programme at the facility.

The Masdar Institute was established in 2007 by the Abu Dhabi Government as an independent, non-profit, research-driven graduate university dedicated to higher education and research in advanced energy and sustainable technologies. With 73 faculty members from 32 countries, it had its first intake of 88 students in 2009.

Dr Khayal, along with Dr Taha Ouarda, a professor and head of the water and environmental engineering programme, and three students - Maryam Butt, Khasaiba Al Dalel and Rahman Olusegun Oloritun - have been studying sleep and its relation to a subject's way of life, culture, diet, and even the type and number of friends they have.

The climate's effect on sleep will also be studied to get a "more holistic" picture of what affects sleep.

"It is one of a kind. The first study in sleep taken within a local context capturing detailed sleep specifics," Dr Khayal says.

"There is no detailed sleep analysis performed during the fasting month of Ramadan. Also, the subjects were always much older, not as young as the ones we sampled."

Called FIRST@Masdar, Fasting In Ramadan Sleep Study at Masdar, 20 locals and expatriates in their twenties and thirties had their sleep patterns recorded over Ramadan using a special device called a Zeo Sleep Manager, which records sleep using a headband worn by the subject.

While still preliminary, the results of this study and others by this team indicate an interesting relationship between various characteristics and sleep quality.

"We noticed that engaging in greater mental activity before bed, like studying or working, causes more deep sleep, which usually means a better kind of sleep," Ms Butt says.

"We also noticed that on average when we tested couples, husbands slept better than their wives and spent more time in REM sleep.

"The women slept worse, especially those with children. But according to general sleep research, women generally sleep better than men."

Mr Oloritun has submitted a separate paper on the relation of body mass and weight to sociability and sleep, finding that change in body mass index was accurately predicted by social exposure to acquaintances and not just close friends. In other words, exposure to people affects your health.

"Sociability has an important effect on our sleep, which in turn has an effect on our weight and health," Mr Oloritun says.

Ms Al Dalel will submit a paper on sociability, overall productivity and health.

"We found that culture also impacts our productivity and overall health," she says.

Together, the studies will help better public and health policies to be drafted.

"There is a lot we still don't know about sleep and its various stages," Dr Khayal says. "It is still a mystery.

"But our studies will help us understand how fasting impacts our health, and can be used for making recommendations concerning better sleeping and eating practices during Ramadan.

"They also allow for further exploration of eating habits, sleep and sociability for specific health conditions, such as diabetes and others."

Light to detect disease

Huddled over desks at their computers were members of the optical microsystems team, who were working on another study, running simulations on a microchip design they hope will change medicine forever.

"Light allows us to tell how old a star is, to probe proteins in the brain and even detect single atoms," says Dr Jaime Viegas, assistant professor of microsystems engineering.

Together with his student Solomon Serunjogi, his team took advantage of these characteristics and are designing an advanced light-sensing circuit they hope can detect abnormalities in the blood as well as in gases in our breath.

"You will just have to put a sample of your blood or sample from your breath on a microchip and it will detect if there something wrong, depending on the test you are conducting. It can be for cancer, for HIV, and so on," Dr Viegas says.

When some cancers, such as pancreatic, are detected using current tests, it can already be too late.

"Our microchips will be able to detect changes in blood much earlier, giving the patient a chance to fight [the disease]," Dr Viegas says.

The miniaturised chips include lasers, optical-sensing heads, micro-pumps and micro-channels, and electronic control circuitry. They will be able to monitor glucose levels in diabetics, diagnose asthma or even check a person's risk of severe heart failure.

"We are looking at the chemical fingerprints left by some of these conditions - in exhaled breath, for example," Dr Viegas says. "These chemical compounds absorb light of specific frequencies, particularly at the two extremes of the visible spectrum, ultraviolet and infrared.

"Like a fingerprint, this absorption is unique, allowing us to distinguish the exact compound present."

Besides medicine, the device could be used in industry and for monitoring the quality of the environment in which a person works and lives.

Monitoring air quality is a rising concern for many residents, and for those working in high-risk environments such as manufacturing, mining, oil and gas, and laboratories.

"Once we have the actual chip, we can make slight modifications to it to make it applicable to so many fields," says Mr Serunjogi, who spent many a sleepless night designing an object even smaller than a single strand of hair.

The best devices currently available - mass spectroscopy detectors - are bulky and expensive, limiting their use to only a few research labs.

"The chip will be portable and allow for immediate real-time results instead of waiting for a week or more for lab results," Mr Serunjogi says. "These chips will save lives and may even be added later to USBs and mobile phones. Anything is possible."

Recharging ancient wells

Besides unlocking the mysteries of sleep and light, there is a team dedicated to studying the source of life - water.

Dr Farrukh Ahmad, associate professor of water and environmental engineering, and his student, Ali Farhat, are researching ways to recharge ancient wells and manage water reservoirs in the Emirates.

"Water supply is a critical issue worldwide and in particular in the UAE, given how it lies in a very arid region with limited rainfall and few bodies of fresh water," Dr Ahmad says.

He added that aquifers - an underground layer of water-bearing permeable rock or unconsolidated materials - were being emptied at an alarming rate. Research into how to best artificially recharge these aquifers is necessary for the benefit of the sensitive ecosystems of plants and animals that rely on them, as well as to serve as a natural water reserve in case of emergency.

"We are studying the effect of recharging them with water from other sources, like desalinated water," Dr Ahmad says. "Through the help of isotopic fingerprinting we can track the water injected into the subsurface."

The natural isotopic ratios of elements within ions in water vary with the source of water and type of processing the water has undergone.

The team is using a method that effectively fingerprints an element and, based on that, it can track the water that carries the fingerprinted element wherever it goes.

"One such tracer is boron, which remains in water after reverse osmosis desalination, a desalination process gaining popularity," Dr Ahmad says. "We can also track the fate of any pre-existing ionic contaminants in the aquifer, such as bromate, nitrate and perchlorate, which can have an adverse effect on the health of humans and animals consuming the water."

Abu Dhabi relies heavily on desalinated seawater, more than 78 per cent, for meeting domestic and commercial demand. Only about 10 per cent of the desalinated water is reused, mostly for agriculture, with the water recovered through wastewater treatment. About 12 per cent of the water comes from natural sources such as groundwater aquifers.

Besides tracking and monitoring, the research will change the overall handling of water.

"When you work with water, you can't help but be fascinated by it," Mr Farhat says. "Besides recharging, our research will help manage water better given its scarcity here. Even countries with lots of rivers, like Lebanon and Syria, have problems with their water because it is mismanaged."

rghazal@thenational.ae