Objectives: One major subject of discussion in sleep studies is whether bursts of K-complexes (K-bursts) and delta waves (D-bursts), expressions of a subcortical arousal, truly reflect an arousal response during sleep. To address this question we studied the changes in heart rate (HR) during spontaneous arousals in healthy subjects.
Methods: Twenty-seven healthy adults were examined. Arousals were graded in 4 levels, including the standard definition of a microarousal (MA), phases of transitory activation (PAT), D-bursts and K-bursts. HR was analyzed for 10 beats before and 20 beats during arousal. EEG spectral analysis was performed for all types of arousals, including in the analysis the 20 s period preceding the actual event.
Results: Each type of arousal was associated with HR changes consisting of a tachycardia followed by a bradycardia. Changes were more pronounced during MA and PAT. Detailed analysis of the HR response showed that HR always increased before MA and PAT onset, associated with a rise in delta, theta and fast EEG activities, and suggesting a cerebral activation.
Conclusions: Our data suggest that such subcortical arousals represent a real arousal response inducing cardiac activation similar to that found during MA and PAT. During MA and PAT, a rise in HR appears before the onset of the actual arousal associated with an increase in EEG slow and fast activity. The link between EEG and HR variation during MA and PAT and the fluctuations in HR during subcortical arousal suggest a continuous spectrum in the arousal mechanisms, starting at the brainstem level and progressing to cortical areas.