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The Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute (SCNi) was established in 2012, under the directorship of Russell Foster, with funding from the Wellcome Trust and University of Oxford. Researchers across several University departments, including NDCN, DPAG, Psychiatry, Engineering and Experimental Psychology, are working to understand the relationships between sleep, circadian physiology and health. The SCNi provides a unique opportunity to translate basic research findings into clinical practice.

All physiology and behaviour shows a 24-hour (circadian) rhythm. These rhythms are driven by our body clocks, found in all of the cells of the body, which are synchronised by the master circadian pacemaker, located in the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) of the brain. The SCN is entrained to environmental light and in turn coordinates the activity of the entire circadian system.

The sleep-wake cycle is the most familiar 24-hour cycle, but involves more than the SCN. Sleep is a highly complex state arising from an interaction between multiple brain regions, neurotransmitter pathways and hormones, none of which are exclusive to the generation of sleep. 

Sleep and Circadian Rhythm Disruption (SCRD) occurs when our natural circadian rhythms are pushed out of sync. Small changes in brain function can have a big impact on sleep, and disrupted sleep leads to health problems ranging across increased stress hormones, heart disease, weight abnormalities, reduced immunity, increased risk of cancer, and emotional and cognitive problems.

Severe SCRD is a feature shared by some of the most challenging diseases of our time – from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to Alzheimer’s and stroke, as well as in serious disorders of the eye. SCRD is also widespread in the ageing population, those who work shifts and everyone affected by the demands of today’s 24/7 society. Despite the prevalence of SCRD, its origins remain a mystery, its detection is frequently overlooked, and it is rarely treated.

Our new data suggests that parallel brain pathways might be affected in these diseases and in sleep disturbance. We plan to further this understanding and use it to develop new approaches to correct abnormal sleep, so improving the broader health problems and quality of life for sufferers.

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Understand the neural mechanisms that generate and regulate sleep and circadian physiology

Define the mechanistic links between sleep and circadian rhythm disruption and disorders of the brain and eye

Understand how societal demands give rise to sleep and circadian rhythm disruption 

Apply this knowledge for the development of evidence-based clinical interventions

Develop training resources and training for healthcare practitioners

Transfer this knowledge to the broader community, patients and caregivers

Related research themes