In an article published July 19, 2022, in the Journal of Sleep Research, bioengineers at the University of Texas at Austin describe their latest development of a mattress + pillow system, featuring the ability to tell the body it’s time to rest by heating and cooling it.
System thermal imaging demonstration (image from: UT Austin)
Along with circadian rhythms, the human body alternates between wakefulness and sleepiness. But what plays an important role after this is the control of body temperature fluctuations during 24 hours.
Based on the aforementioned research, bioengineers at the University of Texas at Austin have developed a unique mattress + pillow system that uses heating and cooling to tell the body it’s time to sleep.
As part of the 24-hour cycle, the body also gets sleepy when body temperature drops at night. But with this new “two-piece bed set,” people can not only fall asleep faster, but also reap the benefits of a better quality of sleep.
Shahab Haghayegh, a researcher in the Department of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said.
"By simply manipulating the body temperature-sensitive sensors built into the device, the body of the user preparing for sleep, will feel a higher temperature than it actually is, thus facilitating the bedtime preparation phase."
While working on his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering (Haghayegh graduates in 2020), he also helped lead the development of this thermoregulatory mattress system.
"In addition, for humans, the skin of the neck is an important area of temperature perception, so this study also introduced a heated pillow component. By increasing blood flow to harmonize the body's heat, this engineered mattress system is able to heat the neck and hands and feet while keeping the central area of the body relatively cool."
Screenshot (from: Journal of Sleep Research)
In the research paper, the scientists actually envisioned a “dual zone” mattress + pillow heating system based on two different scenarios — one using water and the other using air to control body temperature at the core.
The researchers then invited 11 subjects and asked them to go to sleep two hours earlier than usual. The experimental group would use a mattress with warm and cold regulation during the night, while the control group did not.
"The results showed that the heated mattress helped the subjects fall asleep faster - about 58% faster in the experimental group compared to the control group, even when they fell asleep earlier. In addition to significantly reducing the time it takes to fall asleep and lowering body temperature in the core area, it also significantly improved sleep quality."
The project is said to have originated as part of a larger program in the lab of Kenneth Diller, a professor at the Cockrell School of Engineering and an expert in therapeutic devices and thermal thermoregulation, to find new ways to use thermal stimulation to help improve people’s sleep.
In a study published in 2019, scientists found that taking a hot bath an hour or two before bedtime helped people fall asleep faster, and sleep better.
UT Austin’s new program is similar, but the details are a little more specific in terms of implementation — in particular, simply placing sensors in a few key areas that control heat dissipation enables a better level of body temperature control than focusing on the whole body.
Even better, the package was also able to allow the subject’s blood pressure to drop slightly overnight, thus easing the cardiovascular system for a while from the stress of maintaining blood flow for daily activities, which is also vital for long-term health.
Finally, the UT Austin team, which holds the patent for the cooling and warming mattress and headrest, is now looking to partner with mattress companies to successfully commercialize this technology.