Objective measures of sleepiness and wakefulness: application to the real world?

J Clin Neurophysiol. 2006 Feb;23(1):39-49. doi: 10.1097/01.wnp.0000190416.62482.42.


The impact of excessive sleepiness on the individual and on society is immense, and chronic sleepiness is one of the most common complaints evaluated by sleep medicine specialists. The author explores how measures of sleepiness and wakefulness using the Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT) and the Maintenance of Wakefulness Test (MWT) can be clinically useful. A companion article presents a counterpoint discussion of the limitations and drawbacks associated with the MSLT and MWT. Both presentations use an evidence-based approach to understanding the operating characteristics of these tests, and the overall goal is to clarify for sleep medicine specialists the positive and negative attributes of the MSLT and MWT. The MSLT and MWT are the most widely accepted objective measures of an individual's ability to fall asleep and ability to remain awake, respectively. The MSLT is a well-validated and extensively published objective measure of the speed at which a subject falls asleep under standardized laboratory conditions, and it is associated with good to excellent interrater and intrarater reliability, and excellent test-retest reliability. The MSLT is indicated as part of the evaluation of suspected narcolepsy and it may be helpful in differentiating narcolepsy from idiopathic hypersomnia. Mean sleep latency values less than 5 minutes are observed in the majority of subjects with narcolepsy, and the presence of two or more sleep-onset rapid eye movement periods is strongly correlated with a diagnosis of narcolepsy. An MSLT should be performed to address specific clinical questions, and should not be used as a screening tool. The MWT has clinical usefulness in evaluating response to treatment following intervention for conditions associated with excessive sleepiness, and in assessing individuals who must remain awake for safety reasons. However, the sleep medicine specialist should not rely solely on mean sleep latency values as a single indicator of impairment or risk of accidents, but findings should be integrated with the clinical history, compliance, patient judgment, and other factors to form a global impression regarding the individual's response to treatment. Future challenges include refinement of normative ranges in different populations using rigorous statistical methods, and improved understanding of the specific operating characteristics of the MSLT and MWT in different age groups. Additional study is necessary regarding the impact of MSLT and MWT findings on clinical decision-making, patient outcome, and patient and physician satisfaction. From a safety and regulatory standpoint, additional study is needed to establish the correlation between MWT findings and the risk of adverse consequences of sleepiness such as accidents. Because the MSLT and MWT are in-laboratory tests, it is important that investigators also develop novel techniques that provide reliable assessment of sleepiness and wakefulness in the actual work environment over extended periods. In summary, the MSLT and MWT are not perfect tests, but they are the best objective measures currently available for characterization of ability to fall asleep and ability to remain awake.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Humans
  • Polysomnography / methods
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Research Design*
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Sleep Wake Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Sleep Wake Disorders / physiopathology
  • Wakefulness / physiology*