Colin Shapiro Interview

Deena Sherman

If there’s any doubt what Colin Shapiro does for a living – just observe his tie. There, depending on the day, you will find the sun, the moon, the stars and other sleep themes, perhaps a Van Gogh painting depicting sleep. Shapiro is famous for his ties and in his field, this somewhat eccentric professor, is famous for his broad research on sleep.

Sleep Doctor

Shapiro, 49, is the director of the Sleep and Alertness Clinic at the University Health Network in Toronto. He is also the director of the International Sleep Clinic in Parry Sound north of Toronto and of a clinic, TASC, in Fort Erie southwest of Toronto. His accent is not Canadian, though. It’s South African although he likes to take off the Scottish accent – Scotland being where he spent many years studying and lecturing.

While some academics take some time to decide on their area of interest, Shapiro seemed to know right off the bat. While doing his medical degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, he interrupted it after the second year to do an honors degree, zeroing in on sleep. He did it in part because he had already realized how little was known about sleep physiology.

“My 300-page second-year text book had one paragraph on sleep medicine. Nowadays the equivalent textbook would have a chapter on the subject. This represents the advances made in sleep medicine in the last quarter century,” he said.

His interest in sleep continued through medical school and in his fifth year he did an elective with famous sleep researchers William Dement and Christian Guillemenuilt at the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Stanford and with the famous behavioral neurologist, Norman Geshwin, at the Department of Neurology at Harvard University. These electives promoted his interest in the interface between neurology and psychiatry and much later led him to form the International Neuropsychiatry Association (INA), of which he is currently the president.

After completing his medical degree, the newly married Shapiro was invited by Edinburgh’s leading sleep researcher, Ian Oswald, to do his Ph.D. Shapiro is quick to tell you about Oswald, who seems to have been a mentor to the young doctor. Oswald was the only European researcher who participated in the defining manual for sleep recording published in 1968 and chaired by Chicago’s Rechtschaffen and Philadelphia’s Kales. Shapiro refined a love of art in Edinburgh and later published, as part of a series on sleep, a booklet on Sleep and Art.

Shapiro’s Ph.D. was written from 1979 to 1982 on sleep physiology. His focus was on the function of sleep and particularly looking at the facets of the restorative theory of sleep. At the time, he says, the restorative qualities of sleep were considered an old wives’ tale but is now a respectable scientific theory.

He then trained in psychiatry and played a role in the affairs of the Royal College of Psychiatry. He became senior lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Edinburgh. His growth at the time was not only in his career – his family grew with the birth of three daughters who are now 17, 15 and 13. He retained his links to South Africa and, in 1985 developed the first sleep laboratory in Africa at the Physiology Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.

Shapiro, joined the University Department of Psychiatry at the Toronto Western Hospital in 1990 as a professor where he has continued his research and clinical practice. He is the author and co-author of many books and a couple of hundred papers. He wrote was The Forensic Aspects of Sleep and also wrote the first book for family physicians on sleep medicine called ABC of Sleep Medicine. Other books have been aimed at educating the public about sleep. They include Working the Shift, A Self-Health Guide, Defeating Depressing, SLAM Jetlag and Conquering Insomnia.

Shapiro considers his most important areas of research to be the restorative functioning of sleep and, more recently, developing an understanding of interaction between fatigue and sleepiness. His clinical interest is in sleep problems and how they appear in other medical disorders. Recently he was the first to describe a case series of a new parasomnia which gained media attention concerning sexual behavior in sleep and dubbed “sexsomnia”.

He is an advocate of the multi-disciplinary approach to sleep which includes respirology, dentistry and psychology and has also been interested in different treatment modalities and alternatives such as art therapy and acupuncture.

What strikes you about Shapiro is his quick sense of humor and relaxed way he relates to people. There is also a modesty that one realizes only from talking to other doctors. He has a sincere concern for facilitating the careers of his students and colleagues, of hospitality and generosity.

Shapiro seems to aim high whatever he does. Much like the cow on his tie the last time I saw him – it was trying to jump over the moon.