Developing a blood test for drowsy driving

Some experts have said that drowsy driving can be as dangerous as drunk driving, and as such we should devote as much attention to tired and fatigued drivers as we do to speeding and inebriated ones. Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission (TAC) says that fatigue is a contributing factor in 16-20% of the state’s road crashes. But until recently, without a tool like a breathalyser, it has been near impossible to identify fatigued drivers.

Now, because of breakthrough research led by Professor Derk-Jan Dijk, there may be a blood test that will tell us whether a driver is sleep deprived on the horizon. A unique study conducted at the University of Surrey’s Sleep Research Centre used machine learning to a blood-based generic risk profile using mRNA sequences to help identify persons who were acutely sleep deprived. A machine learning algorithm identified a subset of 68 genes and with 92% accuracy could detect whether a sample was from a sleep-deprived or well-rested individual. For the study, 36 participants had their blood sampled after 40 hours of sleep deprivation to evaluate changes in the expression of thousands of specific genes reflecting acute inflammation.

Developing a simple test for sleep deprivation that could be used to keep drowsy drivers off the road may be a while off, Professor Derk-Jan Dijk says “This is a test for acute total sleep loss; the next step is to identify biomarkers for chronic insufficient sleep, which we know to be associated with adverse health outcomes.” At the moment, this breakthrough may have more immediate use within the field of clinical sleep medicine, as it may assist doctors in the diagnosis of sleep conditions.

Nevertheless, sleep deprivation is a huge public health problem, and any step towards understanding and combatting it is one in the right direction. Hopefully this ground-breaking research can be applied to the fatigue management of those in transport professions like pilots, train operators, truck drivers, and bus drivers, who place the public at risk when they have had insufficient sleep; and eventually, contribute to a solution for enforcing against drowsy drivers.

Check out the study here, in the journal of Sleep.

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