Updated February 3, 1999

Pieron, Kleitman and Aserinsky

In 1913, French Scientist Henri Pieron authored a book entitled “Le probleme physiologique du sommeil,” which was the first text to examine sleep from a physiological perspective. This work is usually regarded as the beginning of the modern approach to sleep research. Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman, now known as the “Father of American sleep research,” began work in Chicago in the 1920s questioning the regulation of sleep and wakefulness and of circadian rhythms. Kleitman’s crucial work included studies of sleep characteristics in different populations and the effect of sleep deprivation. In 1953 he and one of his students, Dr. Eugene Aserinsky, made the landmark discovery of rapid eye movement (REM) during sleep.

Dement and Jouvet

Another of Kleitman’s students, Dr. William C. Dement, extended Dr. Kleitman’s path of research. Dement described the “cyclical” nature of nocturnal sleep in 1955, and in 1957 and ’58 established the relationship between REM sleep and dreaming. In 1958, Dement published a paper on the existence of a cyclic organization of sleep in cats. This finding (sleep cycles in species other than humans) created an explosion of fundamental research that pulled together researchers from many different fields‹electro-physiology, pharmacology, biochemistry‹for the next 20 years, and led to Michel Jouvet’s identification of REM sleep as an independent state of alertness, which he called “paradoxical sleep.”


In Europe, the discoveries by H. Gastaut and colleagues of the presence of apnea during sleep in a subgroup of “Pickwickian” patients (1965) led to a flurry of investigations of the control exercised by the “sleeping brain” on the body’s vital functions. This type of work eventually led to the new discipline of “sleep medicine.”

Modern Sleep Research

Today, sleep research comprises many different areas: narcolepsy research; sleep and cardio-respiratory research; and studies of pain and sleep, circadian rhythms, shift work and it’s effects on sleep, sleep deprivation, sleep and aging, and infant sleep, to name a few. There are over 200 accredited sleep disorders centers and laboratories in the United States alone, designed to recognize and treat all disorders of sleep.


The Stanford University Sleep Research Center, the first center of its kind, was established in 1970 by Dr. William C. Dement. Due to the major efforts of researchers and donors, it has continued to be the leading sleep research center in the world. It has grown to include several separate areas, including: The Center for Sleep and Circadian Neurobiology, the Center for Narcolepsy and the Center for Human Sleep Research. Stanford’s famed Sleep Disorders Clinic is directed by the combined efforts of Dr. Jed Black, and Dr. Christian Guilleminault, international expert on sleep apnea and narcolepsy.

In 1997, the Sleep Clinic celebrated its 25 year anniversary.


The need for sufficient, sound sleep has worldwide importance. As industries around the world are increasingly implementing shift work (round-the-clock) schedules, millions of people are changing their sleeping habits. In addition, due to the sleep disorders mentioned below, as well as, to fast-paced lives, many people go without adequate sleep. These habits can have serious consequences. For instance, automobile accidents increase dramatically among people with sleep disorders. Sleep disorders also cause problems in the workplace that effect society as a whole. The Institute of Circadian Physiology in Boston has estimated that sleeping problems, whether as a result of irregular work shifts or medical disorders, are costing American companies $70 billion annually in lost productivity, medical bills, and industrial accidents.

In 1992-1993, the Congressionally appointed National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research, chaired by Dr. William C. Dement, has determined the extent striking findings of the Commission’s report is a startling lack of information about sleep disorders among general practitioners. This lack of information has resulted in misdiagnoses and mistreatments of patients estimated in the millions, very often in cases where a little knowledge and the right treatment might have worked wonders.

As a result of the Commission’s work, legislation to create a National Center for Sleep Disorders Research was passed into law in January 1993. Creation of this center will open a new door for sleep research, allowing better dissemination of the knowledge we already have, and of that yet to come.


There are approximately 84 different sleep disorders. Listed below are some of the most common disorders with links to more information about them.

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