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Brain Res. 1997 Dec 5;778(1):127-34.

Activation of a distinct arousal state immediately after spontaneous awakening from sleep.

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Center for Sleep and Respiratory Neurobiology, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia 19104, USA.


In contrast to the many neural studies into the mechanisms of sleep onset and maintenance, few studies have focused specifically on awakening from sleep. However, the abrupt electrographic changes and large brief cardio-respiratory activation at awakening suggest that a distinct, transiently aroused, awake state may exist compared to later wakefulness. To test this hypothesis we utilized the acoustic startle reflex, a standard un-conditioned reflex elicited by a sudden loud noise. This reflex is modulated under specific conditions, one being a diminution of startle when a quieter pre-stimulus is presented immediately before the loud stimulus. This pre-pulse inhibition (PPI) is used as a measure of sensorimotor gating, with smaller PPI indicating less filtering of sensory inputs and increased responsiveness to external stimuli. Eight rats with electrodes for recording sleep-wake state were studied. An accelerometer measured startle responses. The startle reflex was elicited by 115 dB, 40 ms tones. PPI was produced by 74 dB, 20 ms tones preceding the 115 dB tone by 100 ms. Responses within 100 ms were measured. Stimuli were applied either 3-10 s after spontaneous awakenings, or in established wakefulness (> 30 s). Responses to the startle stimuli alone were similar in the different awake states (P = 0.821). However, PPI was smaller at awakening from non-REM sleep compared to established wakefulness (45.4 +/- 7.5% vs. 74.3 +/- 6.1%, P = 0.0002). PPI after awakening from REM sleep (52.8 +/- 17.9%) was not significantly different than established wakefulness (P = 0.297). Reduced PPI of the startle reflex at awakening from non-REM sleep supports the hypothesis that wakefulness immediately after spontaneous sleep episodes is neurophysiologically distinct from later wakefulness and associated with reduced gating of motor responses to sensory inputs. Spontaneous activation of this distinct, transiently aroused, state upon awakening may serve a protective function, preparing an animal to respond immediately to potentially threatening stimuli.

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