The role of actigraphy in the study of sleep and circadian rhythms

Sleep. 2003 May 1;26(3):342-92. doi: 10.1093/sleep/26.3.342.


In summary, although actigraphy is not as accurate as PSG for determining some sleep measurements, studies are in general agreement that actigraphy, with its ability to record continuously for long time periods, is more reliable than sleep logs which rely on the patients' recall of how many times they woke up or how long they slept during the night and is more reliable than observations which only capture short time periods. Actigraphy can provide information obtainable in no other practical way. It can also have a role in the medical care of patients with sleep disorders. However, it should not be held to the same expectations as polysomnography. Actigraphy is one-dimensional, whereas polysomnography comprises at least 3 distinct types of data (EEG, EOG, EMG), which jointly determine whether a person is asleep or awake. It is therefore doubtful whether actigraphic data will ever be informationally equivalent to the PSG, although progress on hardware and data processing software is continuously being made. Although the 1995 practice parameters paper determined that actigraphy was not appropriate for the diagnosis of sleep disorders, more recent studies suggest that for some disorders, actigraphy may be more practical than PSG. While actigraphy is still not appropriate for the diagnosis of sleep disordered breathing or of periodic limb movements in sleep, it is highly appropriate for examining the sleep variability (i.e., night-to-night variability) in patients with insomnia. Actigraphy is also appropriate for the assessment of and stability of treatment effects of anything from hypnotic drugs to light treatment to CPAP, particularly if assessments are done before and after the start of treatment. A recent independent review of the actigraphy literature by Sadeh and Acebo reached many of these same conclusions. Some of the research studies failed to find relationships between sleep measures and health-related symptoms. The interpretation of these data is also not clear-cut. Is it that the actigraph is not reliable enough to the access the relationship between sleep changes and quality of life measures, or, is it that, in fact, there is no relationship between sleep in that population and quality of life measures? Other studies of sleep disordered breathing, where actigraphy was not used and was not an outcome measure also failed to find any relationship with quality of life. Is it then the actigraph that is not reliable or that the associations just do not exist? The one area where actigraphy can be used for clinical diagnosis is in the evaluation of circadian rhythm disorders. Actigraphy has been shown to be very good for identifying rhythms. Results of actigraphic recordings correlate well with measurements of melatonin and of core body temperature rhythms. Activity records also show sleep disturbance when sleep is attempted at an unfavorable phase of the circadian cycle. Actigraphy therefore would be particularly good for aiding in the diagnosis of delayed or advanced sleep phase syndrome, non-24-hour-sleep syndrome and in the evaluation of sleep disturbances in shift workers. It must be remembered, however, that overt rest-activity rhythms are susceptible to various masking effects, so they may not always show the underlying rhythm of the endogenous circadian pacemaker. In conclusion, the latest set of research articles suggest that in the clinical setting, actigraphy is reliable for evaluating sleep patterns in patients with insomnia, for studying the effect of treatments designed to improve sleep, in the diagnosis of circadian rhythm disorders (including shift work), and in evaluating sleep in individuals who are less likely to tolerate PSG, such as infants and demented elderly. While actigraphy has been used in research studies for many years, up to now, methodological issues had not been systematically addressed in clinical research and practice. Those issues have now been addressed and actigraphy may now be reaching the maturity needed for application in the clinical arena.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Chronobiology Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Electromyography / instrumentation
  • Electronic Data Processing
  • Humans
  • Monitoring, Physiologic / instrumentation
  • Restless Legs Syndrome
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Sleep Apnea Syndromes / diagnosis
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / diagnosis