McLean Hospital 115 Mill Street Belmont, MA 02478
Elizabeth Ryan, PhD, is the associate director of the Behavioral Psychopharmacology Research Laboratory, the director of the Sleep Diagnostics and Treatment Laboratory, and an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. As a clinical psychologist, the overarching goal of her research is to improve the efficacy of treatments for psychiatric disorders, particularly substance use, mood, and anxiety disorders. Her research and clinical service are closely entwined to ensure that patients receive effective, evidence-based treatments.
Dr. Ryan studies the reinforcing effects of various drugs of abuse, developing medications for the treatment of substance use disorders, and understanding the factors that interact with sleep mechanisms. This research is essential in informing the community how to more effectively treat substance use disorders and improve the standard of care for this population. In addition, she researches the presence of sleep disorders in the psychiatric population and how prevalence, symptom presentation, and risk factors may differ from a non-psychiatric population.
Sleep has a powerful and complicated relationship with mental health. The Sleep Diagnostics and Treatment Laboratory, founded in 1998 by Drs. Cynthia Dorsey and Scott E. Lukas and now led by Dr. Ryan, studies the causes and consequences of disrupted sleep, the interaction between sleep and drug use, and the effectiveness of varying treatments for sleep disorders.
Dr. Ryan’s work includes clinical experimental sleep research exploring sleep physiology and behaviors. In addition, this laboratory has served as the hub for a wide range of NIH and industry-sponsored clinical trials aimed at understanding the neurobiological bases of sleep disorders (primarily insomnia) and their treatment. Sleep studies are conducted in the sleep lab on the Belmont campus and also in ‘at home’ sleep assessments.
The sleep study facility and equipment includes a two-bed laboratory on the ground floor of the McLean Imaging Center equipped with an infrared lighting system and low light cameras to maintain visual and auditory contact. Polysomnographic computer systems include one AliceTM 5 LE and two AliceTM PDx portable diagnostic systems. Electrodes, belts, transducers, and sensors record a full sleep montage. Cardiac and respiratory measures including EKG, oral/nasal flow, nasal pressure, thoracic effort, abdominal effort, and oxygen saturation. Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) and bi-level pressure titration systems are also available.
In addition, the lab has Actiwatch® 2 ‘wear and forget’ wrist actigraphy devices for tracking sleep/wake activity over extended periods.
The lab has various areas of research focus. The following is a sampling of the lab’s work.
In studies of the causes and consequences of disordered sleep, Dr. Ryan and her staff examine the neurocognitive and behavioral effects of sleep deprivation as well as the efficacy and mechanisms of behavioral therapy and sedative hypnotics.
The lab examines the relationship between sleep and drug use including how the sleep disruption that accompanies drug use and withdrawal contributes to the risk of relapse, the potential for normalizing sleep to reduce drug cravings, and methadone use as a risk factor for sleep apnea.
Studies have begun to identify sleep restoration processes involving brain bioenergetics. Using 31-P magnetic resonance spectroscopy, elevations in brain beta-NTP (a direct measure of ATP utilization) following recovery sleep were greater in methadone-maintained participants compared to controls. This suggests that differences in sleep and brain chemistry in methadone maintained participants may be reflective of a disruption in homeostatic sleep function.
The lab’s clinical trial evaluation of kudzu—a Chinese herb used for centuries to treat alcohol abuse problems—revealed no side effects on sleep parameters.
Sleep disruptions seen during withdrawal may contribute to the high rate of relapse to cocaine. In the lab’s study, citicoline—a novel medication to treat cocaine abuse—had no effect on sleep, indicating its safe use in this population.
Belmont campus - McLean Imaging Center, Room 112