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J Sleep Res. 2004 Mar;13(1):1-23.

The nature of arousal in sleep.

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Neurological Department, National Institute of Psychiatry and Neurology, Budapest, Hungary.


The role of arousals in sleep is gaining interest among both basic researchers and clinicians. In the last 20 years increasing evidence shows that arousals are deeply involved in the pathophysiology of sleep disorders. The nature of arousals in sleep is still a matter of debate. According to the conceptual framework of the American Sleep Disorders Association criteria, arousals are a marker of sleep disruption representing a detrimental and harmful feature for sleep. In contrast, our view indicates arousals as elements weaved into the texture of sleep taking part in the regulation of the sleep process. In addition, the concept of micro-arousal (MA) has been extended, incorporating, besides the classical low-voltage fast-rhythm electroencephalographic (EEG) arousals, high-amplitude EEG bursts, be they like delta-like or K-complexes, which reflects a special kind of arousal process, mobilizing parallely antiarousal swings. In physiologic conditions, the slow and fast MA are not randomly scattered but appear structurally distributed within sleep representing state-specific arousal responses. MA preceded by slow waves occurs more frequently across the descending part of sleep cycles and in the first cycles, while the traditional fast type of arousals across the ascending slope of cycles prevails during the last third of sleep. The uniform arousal characteristics of these two types of MAs is supported by the finding that different MAs are associated with an increasing magnitude of vegetative activation ranging hierarchically from the weaker slow EEG types (coupled with mild autonomic activation) to the stronger rapid EEG types (coupled with a vigorous autonomic activation). Finally, it has been ascertained that MA are not isolated events but are basically endowed with a periodic nature expressed in non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep by the cyclic alternating pattern (CAP). Understanding the role of arousals and CAP and the relationship between physiologic and pathologic MA can shed light on the adaptive properties of the sleeping brain and provide insight into the pathomechanisms of sleep disturbances. Functional significance of arousal in sleep, and particularly in NREM sleep, is to ensure the reversibility of sleep, without which it would be identical to coma. Arousals may connect the sleeper with the surrounding world maintaining the selection of relevant incoming information and adapting the organism to the dangers and demands of the outer world. In this dynamic perspective, ongoing phasic events carry on the one hand arousal influences and on the other elements of information processing. The other function of arousals is tailoring the more or less stereotyped endogenously determined sleep process driven by chemical influences according to internal and external demands. In this perspective, arousals shape the individual course of night sleep as a variation of the sleep program.

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