Robert Sweetman and Dave Shepardson during their interview with MTEC
Robert Sweetman and Dave Shepardson during their interview with MTEC

MTEC recently spoke with one of our newest members, Existential Technologies, Inc. about their work to develop a virtual sleep environment that can improve mental and physical health by helping warfighters and veterans achieve restful sleep. 

The number of US service members lost to suicide is alarming and heartbreaking.  Veteran suicide is responsible for more casualties than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.[1]  In 2016 alone (the most recent year for which data is publicly available), 6,079 veterans took their own lives[2], an average of more than 16 per day.  “It’s a shocking statistic; it’s something that keeps me up at night,” says Robert Sweetman, retired Navy SEAL and founder and CEO of Existential Technologies, Inc.

But for Rob, veteran suicide is more than a sobering statistic: before Rob left the Navy, Ryan Larkin, one Rob’s teammates and close friends, took his own life at only 29 years old.

“He was a Navy SEAL at the top of his career; he took his life last year, and it never should have happened.”

In his effort to understand this loss, Rob noticed that Ryan showed signs of unhealthy sleeping patterns.  With a little more research, Rob learned that poor sleeping habits are common among veterans who commit suicide.  This finding inspired Rob to form Existential Technologies in order to develop technologies that can help service members and veterans sleep better.

“Sleep health equals mental health,” Rob explains.  “Our goal and our mission in this entire process is to improve sleep so that this doesn’t happen again.  We realize that there are other factors, but the commonality that we found in our research is sleep.”  In addition to the mental health effects of low quality or insufficient sleep, a lack of sleep has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and cancer.

Rob teamed up with Dave Shepardson, an active duty Navy Corpsman Chief who has spent much of his career as a combat medic for the Marine Corps infantry and SEAL Teams.  Together, they set out to build the ideal sleeping environment where warfighters could get the restful sleep that is critical to physical and mental health.

Rob and Dave identified three critical factors influencing the quality and quantity of our sleep: light, sound, and temperature.  Studies have shown that sunlight entering the optic nerve and communicating with the brain can disturb our sleep-wake circadian rhythm.

“If there’s too much light before night, that dim light melatonin onset can be shifted, and if there’s too much light during night, it can cause short sleep (somebody to be woken up).”

In military settings, it’s often difficult to align sleep with our natural circadian rhythms: nighttime missions, multi-day exercises, and stressful watch cycles keep warfighters up at all hours, disrupting the circadian rhythm and causing significant sleep-related disorders.

Similarly, sound, even if it does not prevent someone from falling asleep, can have physical effects on the quality and quantity of sleep.  One study by Dr. Seidler found that 17-year-old males experienced interruptions in slow wave sleep and the sleep cycle when exposed to noise levels of only 45 decibels.[3]

When it comes to temperature, a Center for Disease Control study of approximately 765,000 people found a correlation between warmer nighttime temperatures and less sleep.[4]  As Rob explains, “We all know that deployments to hotter areas like Iraq and Afghanistan can cause some sleep challenges, but the data actually agrees with that general consensus.”

Together, this data shows that light, sound, and temperature significantly influence sleep.  The demands of military service can make it impossible to achieve the ideal sleeping environment.  And these challenges often follow warfighters when they return home.

“Where the principal sleep environment can really impact memory formation with PTSD is on the front line, so to speak,” says Dave.  In essence, the quality of sleep that warfighters have while overseas is critical to their ability to process and cope with traumatic events, even when they return to the US.

This, in turn, impacts the ability of veterans to attain restful sleep: “What we’re seeing in PTSD patients is that a hyperactive amygdala leads to hyper vigilance, leads to anxiety before bed, and leads to challenges falling asleep,” Rob explains.  The memories that warfighters form overseas often prevent them from resuming healthy sleeping patterns, creating or compounding mental health challenges for them.

As Dave succinctly puts it, “What Ryan needed—and what many, many veterans who take their own life or suffer need—is that healthy sleep environment.”

A.R.R.S. Operator Space
Advanced Rest and Recovery System

And that’s exactly what Existential Technologies is building.  Working with Dr. Stephen Curtis, a world-renowned neuropsychologist, and Dr. Gaurav Mishra, a clinical psychiatrist, they have created deployable ballistic sleep environment.  Their “Virtual Sleep Environment” (or “VSE”) uses state-of-the-art virtual reality technologies, including a 4k OLED wraparound screen, to create the ideal light, sound, and temperature conditions for sleep.

“We provide a stable environment for guys to sleep in, so they’re going to get better sleep.  And better sleep leads to better physical and mental health.”

Users will be able to enter the ballistic VSE and experience an artificial transition from dusk to night, watching the sunset on the location of their choosing and experiencing the associated sounds and temperature changes.  As users rest, the VSE keeps all external factors—outside noises, lights, and temperature changes—from disturbing their rest.  In the final stage of this process, the VSE presents a virtual dawn on the screen, with the associated temperature increase, triggering the body to wake.

Existential Technologies is currently developing a prototype of the VSE, working to ensure that the device not only provides the ideal sleeping environment, but is readily deployable and practical for use by service members overseas.  The VSE may even have commercial uses some day soon: currently one in four Americans report suffering from acute insomnia.[5]

Existential Technologies recently joined MTEC and hopes to work with USAMRMC to further develop this critical technology and to deliver the VSE to military users as soon as possible.

“Our laser focus right now is on the military. We are very motivated to help our brothers and sisters that are currently active duty or veterans.”

MTEC is excited to have Existential Technologies among our membership and is honored to contribute to their important mission to improve the physical and mental health of our service members and veterans by ensuring the achieve quality sleep.

“For many who suffer, restful sleep is often nothing more than a dream. It’s time to make that dream a reality through the virtual sleep environment.”

To learn more about Ryan’s story visit http://fullmeasure.news/news/cover-story/ryans-story-08-13-2018 and watch this video:

 

[1] Newman, Bruce. “Veterans Day: Suicide has caused more American casualties than wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The Mercury News [San Jose, CA], Nov. 10, 2015. https://www.mercurynews.com/2015/11/10/veterans-day-suicide-has-caused-more-american-casualties-than-wars-in-iraq-and-afghanistan/

Brook, Tom Vanden. “Suicide kills more U.S. troops than ISIL in Middle East.” USA Today. Dec. 29, 2016. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2016/12/29/suicide-kills-more-us-troops-than-isil-middle-east/95961038/

[2] Fact Sheet: VA’s Efforts to Prevent Veteran Suicide: September 2018.  Department of Veterans Affairs, Veterans Health Administration, Office of Metal Health and Suicide Prevention.  Sep. 2018. https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/docs/VA_Suicide_Prevention_Program_Fact_Sheet_508.pdf. Accessed 1 Nov. 2018.

[4] Obradovich, Nick, Migliorini, Robyn, Mednick, Sara, and Fowler, James.  “Nighttime temperature and human sleep loss in a changing climate.” Science Advances, vol. 3, no. 5 , 2017.

[5] University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “One in four Americans develop insomnia each year: 75 percent of those with insomnia recover.” Science Daily. 5 June 2018.  https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180605154114.htm. Accessed 2 Nov. 2018.