Sleep Timing—A Science-Based, Crucial Factor in Performance and Productivity

As midterm season is upon us and long hours of studying take a greater prominence in students’ schedules, this week’s CSBR Student Economist analyzes the growing body of scientific research on the topic of sleep timing as well as its ramifications for students and the greater economy.

On October 2, 2017, the Swedish Karolinska Institute revealed the winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in the field of physiology or medicine.  As prognosticators and groups of scientists conferred over who may be rumored to receive one of the highest honours in medicine, many worthy candidates came to mind; Dr. James Allison of MD Anderson Cancer Center and Drs. Arlene Sharpe and Gordon Freeman of Harvard Medical School were deemed favorites by STAT, a leading health sciences publication.  David Pendlebury of Clarivate Analytics floated Dr. Lewis Cantley of Cornell University for his 1984 uncovering of the role played by cellular signaling pathway phosphoinositide 3-kinase (PI3K) in cancer, also he highlighted Drs. Patrick Moore and Yuan Chang of the University of Pittsburgh for their discovery of the connection between human herpesvirus 8 (HHV-8) and Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare form of skin cancer often afflicting AIDS patients, as possible candidates.[1]  To the surprise of many in the medical community and to the great shock of Nobel laureate forecasters, the 2017 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to Drs. Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash (both of Brandeis University), and Michael W. Young (Rockefeller University) for their pioneering discoveries of the molecular mechanisms controlling circadian rhythm.

In their research into the topic of circadian rhythm in animals, which has taken place over the past thirty-three years, Hall, Rosbash, and Young were able to use fruit flies as a model organism to isolate the PER protein which is produced by the body and degrades during the day only to be replenished at night—controlling the body’s biological clock.  In 1994, twelve years after the PER protein was first uncovered, Dr. Young discovered the TIM protein which binds to the PER protein to halt the production of the mRNA used to produce the PER protein (thus explaining the mechanism through which the cycle starts and stops).  Through their research, Hall Rosbash, and Young provided the scientific proof behind circadian rhythm (commonly considered the sleep cycle).[2]  The biological clocks of animals are regulated by cellular processes and these processes can be hindered or disrupted through excessive interference (eg. lack of sleep or a poorly defined sleep schedule) which has been linked to increased incidence of various medical issues.[3]

One may ask what does research into the proteins produced by fruit flies have to do with students and the greater study of economics?  This question is easily answered through additional research. Earlier this year, a study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital examined the sleep schedules and GPAs of sixty-one undergraduate students at Harvard College; the researchers found that students with the least regular sleep cycles not only had delayed onset of the melatonin hormone (a molecule crucial in restful sleep) in the evening but also lower GPAs relative to the students with the more regular sleep schedules (“A positive correlation (r = 0.37; p < 0.004) between academic performance and [sleep regularity index (SRI)] was observed”).[4]  The study’s findings underlined the importance of the timing of sleep in addition to the duration of sleep.[5]  By sleeping on a well-defined, regular schedule, students are able to ensure that sleep is both relaxing and most productive.

Furthermore, the research into the importance of sleep regularity adds an additional angle into the debate over school start times for secondary school students (a topic regularly investigated and debated in many communities throughout the United States). In a Brookings Institution policy brief published in 2011, research showed that by delaying school start times, students earned higher grades and an estimated increase in earnings of $17,500 over the working life of the student; Rand Corporation’s analysis went even further claiming that by starting school at 8:30AM (only 10% of U.S. high schools start at 8:30AM or later), it would add an additional $83 billion in economic activity to the U.S. economy over the following decade.[6]  Needless to say, with greater medical research into the importance of the regularity of sleep, greater economic research into the importance of sleep will follow.

For economically-minded students, the solution is clear; to maximize productivity given a constrained endowment of time (24 hours in a day), students should look to not only dedicate an ample amount of time to sleep but also strongly adhere to one’s established sleep schedule as much as possible to minimize any impact to one’s personal circadian rhythm.  The benefits can be experienced in the form of higher grades, higher productivity, better lifetime earnings, and the efficient employment of the most precious resource, time.


John Butler

Works Cited







Picture taken by Ted Eytan titled, "Harvard University Cambridge MA USA 52413" taken on February 27, 2015, obtained through Creative Commons (