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Year : 2010  |  Volume : 12  |  Issue : 47  |  Page : 137--153

Event-related potentials as a measure of sleep disturbance: A tutorial review

School of Psychology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, K1N 6N5, Canada

Correspondence Address:
Kenneth Campbell
School of Psychology, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, K1N 6N5
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Source of Support: Research Grants from Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)., Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/1463-1741.63216

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This article reviews event-related potentials (ERPs) the minute responses of the human brain that are elicited by external auditory stimuli and how the ERPs can be used to measure sleep disturbance. ERPs consist of a series of negative- and positive-going components. A negative component peaking at about 100 ms, N1, is thought to reflect the outcome of a transient detector system, activated by change in the transient energy in an acoustic stimulus. Its output and thus the amplitude of N1 increases as the intensity level of the stimulus is increased and when the rate of presentation is slowed. When the output reaches a certain critical level, operations of the central executive are interrupted and attention is switched to the auditory channel. This switching of attention is thought to be indexed by a later positivity, P3a, peaking between 250 and 300 ms. In order to sleep, consciousness for all but the most relevant of stimuli must be prevented. Thus, during sleep onset and definitive non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, the amplitude of N1 diminishes to near-baseline level. The amplitude of P2, peaking from 180 to 200 ms, is however larger in NREM sleep than in wakefulness. P2 is thought to reflect an inhibitory process protecting sleep from irrelevant disturbance. As stimulus input becomes increasingly obtrusive, the amplitude of P2 also increases. With increasing obtrusiveness particularly when stimuli are presented slowly, a later large negativity, peaking at about 350 ms, N350, becomes apparent. N350 is unique to sleep, its amplitude also increasing as the stimulus becomes more obtrusive. Many authors postulate that when the N350 reaches a critical amplitude, a very large amplitude N550, a component of the K-Complex is elicited. The K-Complex can only be elicited during NREM sleep. The P2, N350 and N550 processes are thus conceived as sleep protective mechanisms, activated sequentially as the risk for disturbance increases. During REM sleep, the transient detector system again becomes somewhat activated, the amplitude of N1 reaching from 15 to 40% of its waking level. Very intense and/or very infrequently presented stimuli might elicit a P3-like deflection suggesting an intrusion into some aspect of consciousness. The types of experimental paradigms used in most ERP studies are quite different from those used in the study of noise and its effects on sleep. ERP studies will need to employ procedures that have greater ecological generalization; stimulus intensity needs to be lower, less abrupt, with much longer durations, and importantly, stimuli should be presented much less often.


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