Rights: The University of Waikato Published 21 July 2007 Download

Dr Richard Jones from the Van der Veer Institute for Parkinson’s & Brain Research talks about using EEG to measure small lapses or microsleeps.

Researchers at the Van der Veer Institute are using EEG to measure microsleeps, which is where people carrying out everyday tasks suddenly stop responding to environmental stimuli. They can become completely unresponsive for several seconds at a time. Studies at the Institute show that normal people may have up to 40 of these microsleeps, or lapses, per hour. It is important for researchers to understand more about these lapses, and particularly how they might affect those in the transport sector such as vehicle drivers or pilots, for whom a lapse could have very serious consequences.


We’ve done studies to show that, in fact, just normal people, when they are not sleep deprived, just in the afternoon, doing a task which is extended, they’re actually lapsing several times. One study we had an average of 40 lapses per hour.

One of our big areas of research is to do with these microsleeps, as some people call them. These are complete lapses – they are completely out of it, not responsive for several seconds. Two of them were way over 100 lapses per hour.

We’re actually interested in being able to detect these lapses of responsiveness, with particular application to the transport sectors, for example, drivers, pilots, air traffic controllers. They’re having these lapses, and if they do have a serious lapse, there can be some serious consequences obviously.

We wanted to detect them using EEG, as it happens, for… as a means of being able to give warnings to drivers or whatever, that they are going to have a lapse, or they’ve started a lapse, before they get too far into it and hit the bridge, and then give them a warning to wake them up.

And what we are going to do is this study in which we are going to put people into the scanner, we’re going to get them to do a particular continuous tracking task, as it’s called, with a joystick, and we’re going to get them going for up to an hour, and we’re going to watch these lapses. We want to measure those and we want to see exactly what is happening in the brain in terms of where it starts and where it goes from, and once we understand it more, we think we can do more to sort of bypass, or detect them better and even perhaps stop them happening in the first place.