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Published on September 28th, 2022 | by University of Mississippi

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University of Mississippi Undergraduate Student Publishes Sleep Research Paper

UM senior studies correlation between brain anatomy and sleep duration

A University of Mississippi senior has published a scientific paper on one of the most essential human needs: sleep.

Nicole Jones, a biology major in the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, is investigating whether the size of the caudate nucleus, a structural component of the brain, can be linked how long people sleep.

“Research based on sleep has been very interesting to me,” Jones said. “I think it’s really cool that there isn’t much out there on it and it’s a hard concept to study.

“Based on what was available, I was able to narrow my project down to look at size-related data of different areas of the brain and sleep duration data.”

The paper, “Sleep Duration is Associated with Caudate Volume and Executive Function,” was published in Brain Imaging and Behavior‘s online edition, with a print edition forthcoming. The bimonthly, peer-reviewed publication features research that uses neuroimaging to study higher brain function.

Tossi Ikuta, associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, has advised Jones on her honors thesis and is co-author on the paper. Undergraduate student research is rarely published before a student graduates, he said.

“People with doctorate degrees strive to publish in this journal,” Ikuta said. “Nikki has accomplished her publication even before her bachelor’s degree.

“I have seen undergraduate students listed as one of the authors in a peer-reviewed journal. However, it is as unusual as an elementary school student doing linear algebra.”

The caudate nucleus is a pair of structures within the medial part of the brain, the basal ganglia. The caudate is associated with high-level functioning such as memory, learning, reward and motivation. This level of functioning can be linked to sleep, Jones said.

“That’s why we started there,” Jones said. “We found that the size and volume of the caudate nucleus was correlated with sleep duration, which means the larger the size of the caudate was in the subject’s brain, the longer they would sleep.”

This was initially found across all age ranges in the study, which included more than 400 people ages 10-85. Upon closer investigation, Jones and Ikuta discovered that the association came primarily from the younger population.

The results bring scientists one step closer to understanding the role of the caudate in sleep, Ikuta said.

“The caudate nucleus is known to be involved in insomnia, but its role in sleep is not very clear,” he said. “We were able to show that the size of the caudate nucleus matters.”

Jones, a native of Nolensville, Tennessee, enrolled at Ole Miss based on its welcoming atmosphere. She had yet to realize the opportunities for firsthand research experience at the university.

“After touring the university in high school, I knew I wanted to come here,” she said. “It’s an intimate campus, but also big enough that I thought there would be lots of opportunities.

“I never realized that I would be publishing a paper – it was a huge surprise to me.”

After graduation, Jones hopes to continue on a path related to research and science in general. She said that her experience working with Ikuta grew her confidence in this area.

“Writing a journal and co-authoring with someone who is well-known in their field was really nerve-racking in the beginning, but Dr. Ikuta grew my confidence and put my ideas out there,” she said. “I would encourage other students to try research, even if it’s just dabbling in it on a volunteer basis.”

By Erin Garrett

University of Mississippi biology major Nicole Jones (left) and communication sciences professor Tossi Ikuta go over brain scans at the South Oxford Center. Under Ikuta’s supervision, Jones has been using the scans to explore how brain structure affects sleep. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services
University of Mississippi biology major Nicole Jones works alongside communication sciences professor Tossi Ikuta in his digital neuroscience lab at the South Oxford Center. She authored a paper recently published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, a remarkable achievement for an undergraduate researcher. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services
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About the Author

The University of Mississippi, affectionately known as Ole Miss, is Mississippi’s flagship university. A member of the elite group of R1: Doctoral Universities - Highest Research Activity by the Carnegie Classification, Ole Miss has a long history of producing leaders in public service, business, academics and the professions. Its 16 academic divisions include a major medical school; nationally recognized schools of accountancy, law and pharmacy; and an Honors College acclaimed for a blend of academic rigor, experiential learning and opportunities for community action. Acclaimed as one of the nation’s most beautiful, Ole Miss's main campus is in Oxford, which is routinely recognized as one of the nation's best college towns.



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