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Neurophysiol Clin. 1998 Dec;28(6):461-75.

Hierarchy of micro-arousals and the microstructure of sleep.

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  • 1Haynal Imre University of Health Sciences, Department of Neurology, Budapest, Hungary.


This review is aimed at providing an overview concerning the hierarchy of different kinds of micro-arousals (without awakening) during slow wave sleep (SWS), and to summarize available data on the dynamic interplay of phasic events constituting the microstructural web of sleep EEG. K-complexes are considered elementary forms of arousal during SWS. They carry characteristics of evoked potentials, which provide subattentive information processing and have at the same time level-setting sleep maintenance functions. Micro-arousals are more complex arousal-dependent phasic events in the hierarchy. One class of recurring micro-arousals are preceded by K-complexes, while others, such as phases of spontaneous transitory activation--type micro-arousals-- represent higher levels of arousal, and are associated with EEG desyncronization, increased muscle activity and signs of autonomous arousal. All types of micro-arousals function in a complex interrelationship with another phasic event--sleep spindles--interpreted as microstates inhibiting sensory inflow through the thalamic relay system. Lastly the CAP (cyclic alternating pattern) phenomenon offers a global framework for characterizing and measuring arousal instability. Appearance of CAP sequences reflects arousal instability in a higher duration range than individual micro-arousals. They represent an arousal control mechanism reflecting that all arousing influences set into motion an oscillatory level setting system around the referential state providing a flexible adaptation for the system to defend it against perturbations. The whole arousal (without awakening) hierarchy thus seems to play an essential role in sleep regulation, serving both cyclicity and maintenance of sleep and providing at the same time flexible contact between sleeper and environment--preserving the possibility to wake up in case of any biological danger, and tailoring sleep program according to actual environmental or inner demands. Although at present there are no accepted rules for microstructural evaluation of sleep, microstructural aspects provide a more dynamic picture both about the preprogrammed and reactive changes in sleep. This approach gives us some clues to better understand sleep disorders as well. Several studies concerning microstructural analysis of certain sleep disorders are also reviewed.

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