Blind patients sought for sleep drug study

Many don’t realize their insomnia, sight may be linked

The Oklahoman
May 9, 2011
By Bryan Dean
Copyright © 2011, The Oklahoma Publishing Company

Jeannie Partaka doesn’t need sight to do her job, but she does need sleep.
Partaka, of Muskogee, is a counselor for the state Rehabilitation Department. She’s completely blind, and like many in that category, she has insomnia. Working after a sleepless night is daunting, she said.

“I work a lot slower,” Partaka said. “I can’t concentrate as well. I have actually been typing case notes, and then I will wake up and have notes that I didn’t even know I wrote.”

A solution could be on the way. Dr. William Orr, chief executive of the Lynn Institute in Oklahoma City and a pioneer in sleep research, is helping a pharmaceutical company study patients such as Partaka with the goal of developing a drug unlike any other sleep aid.

Orr said many blind people — studies suggest up to 80 percent — struggle with insomnia because of their inability to perceive light and dark.

“One of the reasons for that is this sleep hormone, melatonin,” Orr said. “One of the things that cues us to be awake and then to be asleep is light and dark.”

People with normal sight and sleep patterns secrete melatonin on a 24-hour cycle. When conditions get dark, the brain produces melatonin, which makes people sleepy. As conditions lighten, melatonin levels drop and people are more awake and alert.

“When you are unsighted, that cycle extends itself. It may be close to 25 hours,” Orr said.

The cycle being off even 15 minutes can have a major effect on one’s ability to sleep, Orr said. One night the person might sleep fine. But as the days go by and the cycle gets further from normal, it grows increasingly difficult to fall asleep.

Orr said people who are totally blind, with no ability to perceive light and dark, commonly have this problem.

Because the problem is so common among the blind, Orr is working with New View Oklahoma, formerly called the League for the Blind, to help find patients for the study.

Thomas Larson, spokesman for New View Oklahoma, said the group was happy to help, particularly because the study is calling attention to the problem of insomnia among the blind, which gets little publicity.

“A lot of blind individuals may not realize that their sleep difficulties are because of their vision,” Larson said.

Orr said those who volunteer for the study will have their melatonin levels monitored to make sure they qualify.

In the study, one group will get a placebo; the other will get a drug meant to mimic melatonin.

Orr said the drug is intended to correct the brain’s natural rhythm to encourage sleep, rather than just sedating a patient like common sleep aids. He said the drug would be effective for anyone who has sleep problems related to melatonin, not just the blind.

“My guess is they would hope to have this drug on the market in two to three years,” Orr said.