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Daughter's sleep disorder prompts UCCS professor to invent 'sleep hat'

May 6, 2015 Updated: May 6, 2015 at 5:52 am
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photo - Mind Rocket founder and president Michael Larson sits in the workshop while wearing the Sleep Shepherd, a fabric cap that uses sound waves to help people sleep better without the use of drugs. The cap is available for purchase from Amazon and will soon be in Brookstone and Sharper Image retail stores. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette
Mind Rocket founder and president Michael Larson sits in the workshop while wearing the Sleep Shepherd, a fabric cap that uses sound waves to help people sleep better without the use of drugs. The cap is available for purchase from Amazon and will soon be in Brookstone and Sharper Image retail stores. Michael Ciaglo, The Gazette 

Sleep isn't a problem for most high school students - some would sleep until noon every day if they could.

But for Jessica Larson, staying asleep was a huge challenge, and the treatment she received ended up doing more harm than good.

"The doctor put me on some prescription drugs that made me feel strange - jittery and nauseous, and the pills were so large I had to cut them up," says Larson, now 19 and a college student. "They weren't effective for me and made me so nauseous that I couldn't eat. I lost 20 pounds and ended up in the hospital last year."

Her father, Michael Larson, wanted to find a drug-free way to combat her sleep disorder, and he had the scientific and engineering background to do something about it.

Michael Larson is the El Pomar chair of engineering and innovation at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and he has developed several products, including a laser device to fuse human tissue as an alternative to stitches or staples after nasal surgery.

His newest invention is the Sleep Shepherd, a hat equipped with electronics that create a biofeedback loop and slow down brain waves. The Sleep Shepherd began selling on Amazon.com in February for about $150 and has received mostly positive reviews.

As with many inventions, he didn't nail it on the first try.

"The first thing I thought of was the goateed hypnotist swinging a pocket watch in front of your eyes and telling you that you are getting sleepy, so I started looking into hypnotism and brain-wave activity," Michael Larson said. "I modified sunglasses with LED lights on the sides and tried to make them flash more slowly to get the brain to slow down. That resulted in hallucinations, so I had to go back to the drawing board."

He then looked into auditory-induced hypnosis and discovered that he could fool the brain into believing a tone was moving around the listener when it wasn't. He eventually found he could coax the brain to sleep by gradually slowing a pulsating tone. He incorporated an EEG sensor that measures brain waves and uses those measurements to slow the tone and installed it on a pair of modified earphones. Since early tests showed the earphones weren't comfortable for sleeping, he put them in a cloth hat.

A working prototype was ready at about the same time Jessica Larson was released from the hospital, so Michael Larson did what any inventor-father would do: He tried it out on his daughter after doctors weaned her off most of her prescription sleeping drugs.

"It made a huge difference and has really helped me," Jessica Larson said. "I used to play piano, was first-chair piccolo in the Youth Symphony and played volleyball but had to give it all up because of my sleep disorder and had to do a lot of my schoolwork from home. This has given me my life back. I am playing piano again, applying for college, hiking, going on vacation with my family and auditioning for theater shows, all because of my dad."

After the successful test on his daughter, Michael Larson and his product design and development firm, Mind Rocket LLC, found a Chinese company to manufacture the product, raised $51,000 through Kickstarter.com for the first manufacturing run and introduced the Sleep Shepherd in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Online retailers Brookstone and The Sharper Image will soon join Amazon.com in selling the product.

"We believe there is a big market for a product like this; more than 55 million prescriptions were written last year for sleep medication, and the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 70 million Americans suffer from insomnia," Michael Larson said. "We also are targeting people who want to sleep better to enhance their performance on the job or athletically."

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