UNT researchers to determine if insomnia leads to lower response to flu vaccine

Monday, August 29, 2011

DENTON (UNT), Texas -- During the 2009 outbreak of the H1N1 influenza virus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that 15- to 29-year-olds had 4.8 times the rate of infection as those older than 60, despite the fact that the elderly are usually regarded by health care providers as the group that is most vulnerable to influenza infection.

The H1N1 outbreak resulted in the CDC issuing an Infections Alert for Institutions of Higher Education and adding college students, particularly those who live in student housing, to the list of groups who should receive priority for yearly flu vaccinations. Previously, the list included the elderly, children ages 6 months to 18 years old, pregnant women and those of any age with certain chronic medical conditions.

Because past research, however, has shown that flu vaccinations are not always effective, two University of North Texas health psychologists will examine if insomnia -- which affects approximately 10 to 15 percent of college students -- decreases college students' immune response to the influenza vaccine.

Dr. Kimberly Kelly and Dr. Daniel Taylor, both associate professors of psychology in UNT's Clinical Health Psychology doctoral program, received a $442,838 grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a division of the National Institutes of Health, for the study.

Taylor and Kelly plan to recruit 64 UNT students to participate in the study during this coming fall semester, and another 64 to participate during the 2012 fall semester. All of the students must be 18 to 29 years old. Thirty-two of the 64 students for each semester must have insomnia, which Taylor, director of UNT's Sleep and Health Research Laboratory, defines as difficulty sleeping several times a week, despite adequate opportunity to sleep, for at least three months.

Kelly said that although college students tend to have erratic sleeping habits because they may work evening and nighttime shifts and stay up late to study, insomnia is much different from sleep deprivation.

"If you're deprived, you want to sleep, and given the opportunity, you could. If you have insomnia, you may want to sleep, but you can't, even with adequate opportunity to sleep," she said, noting that when insomnia becomes a chronic disorder, it could act as a stressor on the immune system.

Taylor added that if insomnia becomes a major stressor, and is no longer a result of daily stressors, then insomnia should result in reduced effectiveness of the influenza vaccine via suppressed antibody responses to the viral strains.

The UNT students participating in the study this fall semester will receive free psychological examinations and physicals at UNT's Student Health and Wellness Center, where doctors will determine if they have any health problems that may exclude them from the study, including health problems that may cause insomnia. 

Before the visits, the students will complete sleep diaries for one week to help the researchers determine the severity of their insomnia, if they do have insomnia.

Once cleared for the study, the students will have their blood drawn at the Student Health and Wellness Center, with all blood collected at the same time of day. Immediately following the blood draws, the students will receive influenza vaccines developed for the 2011-12 flu season. Kelly said this year's vaccine, which is now available, was developed based on the three most prominent flu strains found in Asia during winter 2010-2011, and includes the H1N1 strain responsible for the 2009 pandemic.

Four to five weeks after receiving the vaccines, the students will return to the Student Health and Wellness Center for second blood draws. The researchers will determine antibody response to the strains of flu in the vaccine.

"There is no guarantee that students won't be exposed to other strains of flu that are not included in the seasonal vaccine and become sick," Kelly said.

All of the 64 students who participate in the study this fall semester, and the 64 who participate during the 2012 fall semester, will receive financial compensation for each phase of the study. Research results will be available during the spring of 2013.

For more information or to volunteer for the study, call 940-565-2837, or go to http://www.psyc.unt.edu/sleeplab//Research/research.html.

UNT News Service Phone Number: (940) 565-2108