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Prof. Dr. Tiina Paunio

Keynote Lecture:

Genetic variability in sleep-related mechanisms of cognition

Sleep Europe 2024 Lecture Summary

Sleep and its stages play an integral role in supporting neuropsychological processes related to brain plasticity. Conversely, quantitatively, or qualitatively insufficient sleep leads to deviations in a range of psychological functions including attention and memory. However, the individual responses to sleep loss vary remarkably.

One can anticipate that a functionally compromised brain is more dependent on the recovery process provided by sleep, making it more sensitive to the negative effects of sleep curtailment. Such intrinsic liability could be found among individuals who have developed a brain disorder with cognitive impairments, such as ADHD (attention and impulse control), schizophrenia, or Alzheimer’s disease (learning and memory), in line with observations from longitudinal epidemiological studies evidencing for the link between insufficient sleep at baseline and incidence of the brain disorder at follow-up. Moreover, as cognitive deficits are found also in family members unaffected by the disorder, notably ADHD or schizophrenia, high genetic risk without a manifest disorder could lead to decreased tolerance to sleep loss, while low risk could act as a protective factor. Furthermore, genetic vulnerability or resilience factors could contribute to varying responses during recovery after sleep deprivation or restriction as well.

Characterizing genetic underpinnings in heterogeneous responses to sleep loss, as well as in variability of the recovery sleep, can provide us important insight into the sleep-dependent modulation of cognitive processes. Eventually, this may help in developing preventive health strategies and tailored treatment protocols for vulnerable groups at different stages of life.


Tiina Paunio, MD, PhD, is Professor of Psychiatry, Chair of Department and Program Director of the SleepWell research Program at the University of Helsinki (UH), Chief Physician at Helsinki University Hospital, and Research Professor at National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL).

She obtained her doctor’s degree in Medicine in 1993 and PhD degree in 1995 from UH and did her post-doctoral studies during 1996-1998 in Paris at LGN-CNRS. After working as a project coordinator for an international collaboration on schizophrenia (SZ) during 1998-2002, she established her own research group in 2002, which functions today at UH and THL (www.helsinki.fi/sleep-and-health). She got her specialist degree in Psychiatry in 2007 and since 2010 (nominated 2014) she is a full-term professor of Psychiatry at University of Helsinki. 

Her research focuses on the complex relationship between disturbed sleep and psychiatric conditions like schizophrenia, ADHD, or mood disorders. One of the goals is to understand mechanisms in inter-individual variation in both immediate and late effects of sleep insufficiency in sleep laboratory and epidemiological studies. These are based on a hypothesis that a functionally compromised brain, such as in brain disorders with cognitive impairments or at high genetic risk for such a disorder, is more dependent on the recovery process provided by sleep, making it more sensitive for the negative effects of sleep curtailment.

Currently, the research group searches for sleep traits in patients with various types of psychiatric disorders (schizophrenia, anxiety, and mood disorders) by using surveys, measurements at home environments, as well as sleep laboratory and neuroimaging studies. That study is based on a hypothesis that sleep and circadian traits can be used for dissecting patients with psychiatric disorders into etiologically more uniform disease subclasses and that these subclasses differ in their prognosis and response to treatment. She also collaborates in extensive international studies aimed at finding genetic underpinnings for brain disorders such as schizophrenia.

Prof. Paunio has supervised and examined several doctoral theses in Finland and other European countries. She leads the European Somnologist examination committee since 2014, she is Deputy Editor of Journal of Sleep Research since 2020, and Editor of the European Textbook for Sleep Medicine (2nd ed.) 2021. She was the member of the ESRS Scientific Committee in 2012-2014 and ESRS Board in 2014-2020 (Vice President in 2016-202). She belongs to a number of national and international research consortia and funding organizations and is a member of the expert group for EBM recommendation for treatment of insomnia in Europe and in Finland.