Professional News
Leading Sleep Researcher Hopes To Recruit More Psychiatrists to Field
Psychiatric News
Volume 37 Number 17 page 12-12

Ruth Benca, M.D., Ph.D., associate chair of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine, Madison, is the new president of the Sleep Research Society (SRS). The organization’s nearly 900 members represent a wide variety of disciplines and 32 countries.

Departments of psychiatry have been a haven for sleep research over the years, Benca told Psychiatric News. Sleep is among the most important, albeit least well-understood human behaviors, she said. Sleep disturbances of all types, not just insomnia, are strongly linked to psychiatric illness.

Recent findings in understanding the pathophysiology of narcolepsy, for example, show how abnormalities in specific neurotransmitter systems can have far-reaching effects on behavior, she said. SRS hopes to attract more young academic psychiatrists to the field.

There are no departments of sleep medicine yet, Benca said, although SRS hopes that will happen. SRS provides a variety of programs for sleep trainees at its own meetings, as well as at those of other specialty groups.

SRS launched a program this year to support appointments of junior faculty members committed to sleep research at North American academic institutions. The award honors J. Christian Gillin, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine (Psychiatric News, November 2, 2001). The first J. Christian Gillin Junior Faculty Award was presented to Washington State University, Pullman, which appointed David Rector, Ph.D., as assistant professor in its department of veterinary and comparative anatomy, pharmacology, and physiology.

Benca’s research aims to elucidate mechanisms for sleep abnormalities in psychiatric disorders. It includes studies of the effects of lighting changes on behavioral states. Findings in both pigmented and albino rats in her lab show that acute behavioral responses to light may be mediated by subcortical visual systems. A new project aims to discover how sparrows manage on little or no sleep for a week or longer while migrating. This research potentially could benefit military troops in combat situations. Its funding comes from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense. ▪

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