Autism and sleep disruption – a family affair

Research Lives: Dr Lorna Lopez, lecturer in the Department of Biology and Kathleen Lonsdale Institute for Human Health Research, Maynooth University

Congratulations, you have just been awarded European Research Council funding – those grants are hard to get. What will your project be about?

Thank you. I will use the ERC funding for a project called Family Sleeps, where we are looking to improve our understanding of the role of sleep disruption in families with a child or children with autism.

Children with autism often don’t sleep well, and this can have an effect on the entire family. I want to do an in-depth study of the entire family’s body clocks or circadian rhythms and sleep timing, and to see if genetic patterns are linked to how family members react to sleep disruption.

How will you carry out the study?


We want to engage with families where one or more of the children has an autism diagnosis, and with families where no child has autism. We’ll use sensors to track their circadian rhythms over the course of a year and analyse everyone’s genome for interesting markers or genetic patterns.

Why do we not already know much about this?

It’s quite a challenging thing to measure. We need to figure out the most appropriate sensors that children, and particularly children with autism, can tolerate well. Sensor technology has developed a lot recently, so we may be able to use sensors that children don’t need to wear.

Also, we now have the ability to explore entire genomes, which is relatively new. It will still be a challenge to take into account all the variability in the data. But we hope to find patterns that can tell us about why sleep disruption happens in autism, and whether this links to the circadian rhythms in the wider family.

How might Covid-19 affect the project?

One of the nice things about the ERC grant is that it is for five years, so I can spend the next while really planning the project in detail and ensuring everything is in place, without worrying about the need to write another grant application to keep things going. So in a way, it’s a good time to be doing the groundwork.

What aspect of the work do you enjoy the most?

Genetics. I studied genetics at Trinity College Dublin and have been working in the field since my PhD at the University of Edinburgh. In that 20 years or so, I have looked at how genes relate to things like cognitive function, psychosis and autism. Genetics has always been at the heart of it.

Is science a big thing in your family?

Well my husband, Dr Manuel Lopez Vernaza, is a scientist. We met when we were doing our PhDs in Edinburgh. He did his doctorate in plant science, and now he works in the Department of Agriculture.

And what do you do to take a break?

We have three kids, so a lot of my time is spent doing family things. But recently I have been getting back into hockey. I played a lot in school, and during my PhD. But then I stopped.

So I recently dusted off my skills and started playing “vet hockey” for over-35s. When I’m playing hockey it gets me away from my work and my phone, it’s just about being out in the fresh air and pure enjoyment of the sport.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation