Animals — from jellyfish to human beings — sleep. Why this behavior is so common is still unclear, but sleep appears to be connected to learning and memory. Mitchel McCloskey, an Environmental Science Master’s student at Alaska Pacific University (APU), is investigating how sleep deprivation and disruption affect Eastern Pacific red octopuses’ ability to complete simple tasks.
As an undergraduate, Mitchel looked at the sleep patterns of bees and bats. He also became fascinated with octopuses. According to Mitchel, “Octopuses are very strange animals and we really don’t know much about their daily behavior.” He contacted Dr. David Shield at APU about doing sleep research on octopuses and the two of them designed the experiments that are at the core of Mitchel’s project.
For the first time, red octopuses are the subjects of sleep research (previously, studies used common octopuses). Mitchel will document and describe what normal sleep looks like in these creatures. Next, he will test their sleeping and waking reactions to various levels of vibration. Finally, he will determine what impact restricting sleep either during or after training has on the animals’ ability to navigate a maze.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has set back the project. Mitchel has had to delay building the closed aquaria that will house his test subjects. But progress is being made. He has immersed himself in the background literature and learned to use the computer programs and neural network that are central to his work. And he is already collaborating with the two undergraduates who will assist him in his project. “I consider recruiting and training these ‘new scientists’ one of the most important aspects of this project,” he says. The students will gain STEM experience and become valued members of the research team. Mitchel hopes to begin his experiment this fall.
This project has implications well beyond the laboratory. The results may say something about the impact of poor sleep on human beings’ ability to perform tasks effectively. This could have ramifications for people who do shift work or suffer from persistent lack of sleep. Understanding sleep behavior could also shed light on how astronauts might perform during deep space missions when their sleep may be irregular or insufficient.
Name: Mitchel McCloskey, Graduate Student
Institution: Alaska Pacific University
Mentor: David Scheel, email@example.com
Award: Research Grant
Funding Period: 2020 to 2021