Explore This Research Lab

The Sleep Disorders Clinical Research Program, led by John Winkelman, MD, PhD, is part of the Outpatient Psychiatry Division of Massachusetts General Hospital. The program is dedicated to clinical and investigative efforts in sleep disorders and the overlap of sleep medicine and psychiatric disorders. It focuses in particular on the following disorders:

  • Restless legs syndrome (RLS)
  • Insomnia
  • Sleep-related eating disorder (SRED)

While the Sleep Disorders Clinical Research Program is focused on sleep research, Dr. Winkelman is also available for clinical appointments through the Division of Sleep Medicine in the Department of Neurology at Mass General.

Our Research

Our goal is to improve the understanding of sleep disorders, particularly restless legs syndrome (RLS), insomnia, abnormal behaviors during sleep (including sleep-related eating disorder) and the relationship of psychiatric disorders and sleep. We work to translate these insights into improved treatments for these disorders.

Our research focuses mainly on the treatment of restless legs syndrome using a number of different interventions:

  • Devices
  • Medications
  • IV iron infusions
  • Understanding the cardiovascular aspects of RLS

We also conduct studies investigating the relationships between insomnia and both depression and diabetes, as well as medication studies for sleep-related eating disorder.

Current Projects

National RLS Opioid Registry
The National RLS Opioid Registry based at Massachusetts General Hospital brings together patients all around the country to assess the long-term safety and effectiveness of opioid medications for RLS.

Treatment of RLS in Protracted Opioid Withdrawal
We are studying whether pramipexole is an effective treatment for RLS symptoms in OUD patients during post-detox clinical stabilization. Further, we are investigating whether the treatment of RLS in this context will also improve overall symptoms of opioid withdrawal.

RLS Curbside

RLS Curbside is a free, HIPAA-compliant online discussion board for healthcare practitioners to help optimize the management of complicated RLS patients. We hope this tool will enable healthcare providers to confidently treat RLS with the most efficacious, evidenced-based, personalized treatments for their patients.

Please contact us to learn more about our research or enroll in a study.

Current Lab Members

  • John Winkelman, MD, PhD – Chief
  • Adysn Kilty – Research coordinator
  • Jordana Zackon – Medical student
  • Ben Wipper – Medical student
  • Sylvie Adams – Research intern
Past lab members
  • Sayaka Aritake-Okada, PhD, Postdoctoral fellow
  • Ryan Bottary, Boston College
  • Tien-yu Chen, MD, National Defense Medical Center
  • Song Chi, MD, Research fellow
  • Atilla Gonenc, PhD, McLean Hospital
  • Seung-Gul Kang, MD, PhD, Gachon University
  • Marcus Kankkunen, Research intern
  • Cathy McCall, MD, Resident
  • Leslie Mei, Research Coordinator, Weill Cornell Medical College
  • James O'Connor, Research intern
  • Julia Purks, Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont
  • Christopher Romero-Gutierrez – Research assistant
  • Laura Schoerning, Marian University

About Sleep Disorders

The research done by the Sleep Disorders Clinical Research Program focuses primarily on understanding the following sleep-related disorders.

Restless legs syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a common, chronic sleep-related movement disorder that affects 3-5% of the general population. It is characterized by an irresistible urge to move the legs, often in response to uncomfortable sensations in the legs. People who have RLS describe the sensations as creeping, crawling, tingling, aching or burning. The symptoms are provoked by inactivity and relieved with movement. RLS symptoms are most severe in the evening or at night, so RLS can cause significant sleep disturbance. RLS has been associated with low iron levels, endstage renal disease with dialysis and peripheral neuropathy.

Treatment options: RLS can be treated with different kinds of medication, including dopamine medications, alpha-2 delta medications and opioids. Oral iron supplements or intravenous infusions may also help improve RLS symptoms.


Roughly one-third of adults have difficulty falling or staying asleep or find themselves waking up too early on a regular basis. A diagnosis of insomnia disorder is appropriate for people with prolonged sleeplessness that causes substantial distress, problems with daytime functioning, or both. Chronic insomnia can cause reductions in perceived health and quality of life, increases in workplace injuries or absenteeism and even fatal injuries. Additionally, prolonged insomnia is associated with an increased risk for depression and may be a risk factor for other health problems like heart disease, hypertension and diabetes, especially when combined with regular sleep of less than six hours per night.

Treatment options: The first-line therapy for insomnia is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which includes setting realistic sleep goals, limiting time spent in bed, addressing skewed beliefs about sleeplessness and practicing relaxation techniques. For those who have short-term insomnia due to a known cause, doctors can prescribe sleep medications. For people with severe insomnia that is unresponsive to behavioral treatments, medications can be considered.

Learn more about insomnia

Sleep-related eating disorder

Sleep-related eating disorder (SRED) is a sleep disorder characterized by partial or full waking from sleep coupled with compulsive eating. People with SRED cannot control their nighttime eating and may be only partially conscious while doing so. The most common concern about SRED is weight gain, though disturbed sleep and daytime fatigue may also be issues. This disorder is more common in women, and symptoms typically appear in early adulthood. SRED is closely related with Night Eating Syndrome (NES).

Treatment options: Current treatments for SRED have been directed towards treating any underlying sleep disorder, eating disorder or psychiatric disorder that is present. Medications can sometimes be used—selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), dopaminergic agonists, benzodiazepines, anorectics, hypnotics and opioids have been used, but success in treatment has varied.

News Coverage

The work of Dr. Winkelman has been featured in both academic and popular publications.

Academic publications
News coverage