A customer tries on an Apple Watch at an Apple Store in Hong Kong. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Why is it that some of us are able to fall asleep, night after night, as soon as our heads hit the pillow while others spend hours tossing and turning? How humans sleep, when we sleep and why we sleep at all have been among the most perplexing questions facing scientists throughout the ages.

In our modern world, sleep has become almost an obsession, fueling a billion-dollar industry that includes all manner of pills, white noise machines, luxury bedding and even personalized beds. Yet we still know very little about the basic connection between sleep habits and how that impacts how well -- and how long -- we live .

A new research project launched Tuesday by IBM and the American Sleep Apnea Association aims to find some of those answers through big data.

[Sleep study on modern-day hunter-gatherers dispels notion that we’re wired to need 8 hours a day]


The study involves an app -- SleepHealth -- that you download onto your Apple Watch or iPhone that will collect data that scientists hope will be able to find connections between sleep quality and daytime activities, alertness, productivity and your health and medical conditions. The researchers will gather data from the devices'  accelerometer, which detects movements, and the gyroscope, which determines orientation in space as well as the Watch's heart rate monitor.

The app is part of the growing number developed through Apple's ResearchKit, the groundbreaking platform the consumer electronics giant developed in order to help scientists connect with iPhone and Apple Watch users willing to share their data. The company has reported that it has signed up tens of thousands of participants for studies focused on cardiovascular health, epilepsy, autism, melanoma and other topics.

Carl Stepnowsky, an associate professor at University of California at San Diego and principal investigator for the study, explained in a statement that he hopes SleepHealth will become the world's largest longitudinal study on both healthy and unhealthy sleepers. Researchers said they aim to enroll at least 40,000 people in the study.

“We’ve made life the laboratory for this study by crowd-sourcing data and input to achieve an unprecedented understanding of sleep in a non-invasive manner,” Stepnowsky said.

IBM says it will be the first ResearchKit study to run on the Watson Health Cloud. The advantage, according to the company, is that this will enable researchers "to combine data collected via the SleepHealth app with diverse data sources such as medical literature, treatment guidelines, claims data and clinical data."

Participants will not only be able to participate in the research by suggesting topics to explore, they'll also get access to personalized tips on health and sleep. In theory, the longer the study goes on the better these personalized tips will get. Among the ambitious examples given by IBM and the American Sleep Apnea Association: helping athletes optimize their training, mitigating fatigue in the workplace, and detecting early symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

Read more:

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