Regular, quality sleep is vital to good health. Sleep is restorative and may play a role in maintaining a healthy immune system, a healthy metabolic rate, and a healthy mental state. Unfortunately, many people will experience a sleep disorder at some point in their lives and will feel firsthand the negative impacts of lack of sleep. The most common sleep disorders include insomnia, sleep apnea, and narcolepsy. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute estimates approximately 40 million Americans suffer from some type of sleep disorder.

Untreated sleep disorders and sleep deprivation have a negative impact on every facet of society. From exhausted third-shift workers who fall asleep while driving, to people who are under-productive at work because they are suffering from insomnia, the direct and indirect costs of sleep disorders spiral into the billions of dollars.

The Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center (MRSDC) at HCMC, the flagship acute care and teaching hospital of the Hennepin Healthcare System, has been studying sleep disorders for 40 years. The MRSDC was founded in 1976 by Dr. Milton Ettinger. He sought to create a multidisciplinary sleep center where research on the subject would be carried out and where sleep disorder patients would receive the most advanced medical care. This pairing of services allowed patients to access the latest care practices and it allowed researchers to study a wide variety of cases.

When the MRSDC was founded, understanding of sleep disorders was very limited. Only a few decades ago, most people with a sleep disorder were considered by the medical community to have mental health problems. The MRSDC has been a major contributor to modernizing sleep medicine. Researchers there were the first to recognize several common sleep disorders, including REM sleep behavior disorder (a condition where the paralysis that normally accompanies REM sleep is incomplete or absent, allowing the person to act out their dreams), sleep eating disorder, and epic dreaming (a condition where patients report having extremely vivid dreams throughout the night typically involving constant activity).

One of the most novel and exciting research projects that has been conducted at the MRSDC is the emerging field of sleep forensics: the study of crimes or accidents that purportedly happen while the person is suffering from a sleep disorder and not consciously aware of their activities. The crimes and accidents cited can include anything from murders to falling asleep while driving.

The staff at the MRSDC places a high priority on educating the community on sleep and sleep disorders. They give talks on sleep disorders, work extensively with the media, and work with law enforcement to advance the community’s understanding of sleep disorders. Through all their efforts, the medical professionals at the MRSDC hope to increase the public awareness of sleep disorders and their impact on society.