Dad Invents Sleep Device After Daughter is Diagnosed with Narcolepsy

Dad Invents Sleep Device After Daughter is Diagnosed with Narcolepsy (ABC News)

A Colorado dad is helping break the cycle for troubled sleepers with a new headband that helps people sleep and tracks their brain waves through an app.

Michael Larson of Colorado Springs told ABC News that he brainstormed ideas on how to help people get more shut-eye, after his daughter Jessica was diagnosed with narcolepsy three years ago.

His device, The Sleep Shepherd, has raised $830,000 through crowdfunding and is about to be sold in retail stores.

"People have routinely grabbed for a chemical solution for sleep," Larson, 54, an engineering professor at the University of Colorado, said. "We really haven’t appreciated the fact that sleep has an effect on the quality of life like exercise and nutrition. I didn’t know much about sleep or appreciate it until my daughter was diagnosed. It was really eye-opening."

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When his daughter, Jessica, was a 17-year-old senior in high school, Larson said she began having a difficult time staying awake in class.

He took Jessica to a number of doctors before she was diagnosed with narcolepsy -- a neurological disorder that can send a brain signal for a person to fall asleep at any given time, against their will.

"In addition to daytime drowsiness and uncontrollable sleep episodes, most individuals also experience poor sleep quality that can involve frequent waking during nighttime sleep, and other sleep disorders," the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) indicated on its website. They also said people with narcolepsy do not sleep more during a 24-hour period than normal sleepers, contrary to popular belief.

Jessica Larson began taking sleep-aid medication so she could get more continuous sleep at night. But the side of effect was loss of appetite and she wasn't eating properly. Soon, she was hospitalized for malnourishment, her father said.

"Looking at her suffering from a sleep disorder, I began to learn," Larson said. "I became a member of the Sleep Research Society and began to understand the role of the brain in sleep. I realized that if I'm looking for a non-pharmaceutical solution for sleep, I had to find a way to help the brain slow down."

In 2015, Larson successfully developed The Sleep Shepherd -- a home sleep hat that monitors your brainwaves and helps you fall asleep quickly through the use of specially-engineered binaural beats, or sound illusions that are created by piping slightly different tones into each ear.

Larson's new device, the Sleep Shepherd Blue, now features bluetooth functionality so users can track their sleep habits including brain wave data, motion events and times spent sleeping in each position (left side, right side, back).

The headband is built with thin speakers that deliver low-frequency sounds to each ear, producing the binaural beats.

Larson said the sounds enable the brain to be slowed down so a person can fall asleep easier, and when regulated, stay asleep longer.

"Binaural beats, it creates the illusion that you're in the presence of a sound moving left to right," Larson said. "An analogy people can relate to is how in hypnosis, there's a pocket watch moving back and forth."

Like the swaying watch, using the Sleep Shepherd will engage the brain to follow the binaural beats playing from the speakers in the headband.

This, in turn, will slow down brain waves and help a person fall asleep, Larson explained.

The smartphone app associated with the headband also provides access to an alarm feature, which plays the beats in reverse and eases you out of a deep sleep.

"This helps you wake up refreshed, rather than being jolted awake by an alarm," Larson said.

The forehead sensor on the headband (which has been compared to medical-grade EEG sensors) measures the rate of a person's brain activity and sends the information to the app, which then controls how the tones play, to induce asleep.

"I find that it is necessary for this bio-feedback to be effective in knowing how deep someone's sleep is and we know when to turn off the tones."

After raising over half a million dollars Kickstarter and Indiegogo combined, Larson began selling The Sleep Shepherd in retail stores.

He is now asking $249 for the device, or $199 on, shipping to several retail chains including The Grommet, Sharper Image, Brookestone and Best Buy stores.

So far, Larson has sold 8,500 hats and bluetooth headbands combined.

But, Larson wants customers to know, the device may take a night or two for a person to become adjusted.

"There’s clearly a lot of people looking for a non-drug solution to help them sleep," Larson said. "I don’t want to mislead anyone. The effect is not an overwhelming one where you put the hat on and suddenly you're unconscious. The effect is hypnotic and just like any hypnotic effect, you have to really give your attention to it. Susceptibility to hypnotic input varies from person-to-person."

Larson said he's pleased that his daughter Jessica, who was the first person to use the device, has slept with it on every night for over a year.

"I care deeply about her," he said. "I love her a lot. I think she's at a place at 20 [where] she wants to help people who are suffering the plight of the same situation. It has been doing great things for her."

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