Do Not Disturb

Your alpha rhythm indicates sleep stability

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) A significant portion of American adults report not getting enough sleep. Through studying certain brian rhythms, researchers have gained insight into one factor that may cause people to be easily disturbed during sleep.

Alpha rhythms in the brain, which are characteristic of wakefulness, not only continue discretely during sleep but also indicate one's vulnerability to sleep disturbances, according to a new study.

The alpha rhythm is a brain rhythm that marks the transition between sleep and being awake. It is usually generated when a person is still awake but relaxed. As a person falls asleep, the alpha rhythm seems to disappear.

Now, Scott McKinney, informatics manager at the Massachusetts General Hospital Division of Sleep and lead author of the study, and colleagues have discovered that the alpha rhythm is more than a marker of wakefulness. It also tells a lot about about sleep stability.

In order to see if the alpha rhythm showed a sleeping person's sensitivity to disturbances from the outside world, the researchers monitored electroencephalography (EEG) rhythms in 13 healthy individuals for three nights. At different points during the night, volunteers were subjected to normal background noises, such as traffic or a ringing telephone.

Looking at the EEG measurements, McKinney and colleagues found that volunteers with the strongest alpha signals were more easily disturbed while sleeping.

The ability to measure alpha rhythms may provide pathways for the development of new sleep medications that are only delivered when the brain becomes most vulnerable to sleep disturbances, as opposed to current treatments, which essentially knock out the patient for the duration of the night. Creating targeted therapies would allow natural brain rhythms to run their course (which is healthier), while administering medication only when it seems sleep will be interrupted.

According to a 2008 CDC study, more than 11 percent of adults in the United States reported insufficient sleep or rest. Approximately 29 percent of adults get less than 7 hours of sleep per night. An estimated 50 to 70 million American adults have chronic sleep and wakefulness disorders.

The study from Massachusetts General Hospital appears in PLoS One, a journal of the Public Library of Science.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
March 4, 2011
Last Updated:
March 7, 2011