Background: Nocturnal hypoglycemia frequently occurs in patients with type 1 diabetes mellitus (T1DM). It can be fatal and is believed to promote the development of the hypoglycemia-unawareness syndrome. Whether hypoglycemia normally provokes awakening from sleep in individuals who do not have diabetes, and whether this awakening response is impaired in T1DM patients, is unknown.
Methods and findings: We tested two groups of 16 T1DM patients and 16 healthy control participants, respectively, with comparable distributions of gender, age, and body mass index. In one night, a linear fall in plasma glucose to nadir levels of 2.2 mmol/l was induced by infusing insulin over a 1-h period starting as soon as polysomnographic recordings indicated that stage 2 sleep had been reached. In another night (control), euglycemia was maintained. Only one of the 16 T1DM patients, as compared to ten healthy control participants, awakened upon hypoglycemia (p = 0.001). In the control nights, none of the study participants in either of the two groups awakened during the corresponding time. Awakening during hypoglycemia was associated with increased hormonal counterregulation. In all the study participants (from both groups) who woke up, and in five of the study participants who did not awaken (three T1DM patients and two healthy control participants), plasma epinephrine concentration increased with hypoglycemia by at least 100% (p < 0.001). A temporal pattern was revealed such that increases in epinephrine in all participants who awakened started always before polysomnographic signs of wakefulness (mean +/- standard error of the mean: 7.5 +/- 1.6 min).
Conclusions: A fall in plasma glucose to 2.2 mmol/l provokes an awakening response in most healthy control participants, but this response is impaired in T1DM patients. The counterregulatory increase in plasma epinephrine that we observed to precede awakening suggests that awakening forms part of a central nervous system response launched in parallel with hormonal counterregulation. Failure to awaken increases the risk for T1DM patients to suffer prolonged and potentially fatal hypoglycemia.