Sleep EEG changes during adolescence: an index of a fundamental brain reorganization

Brain Cogn. 2010 Feb;72(1):56-65. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2009.09.008. Epub 2009 Nov 2.


Delta (1-4 Hz) EEG power in non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep declines massively during adolescence. This observation stimulated the hypothesis that during adolescence the human brain undergoes an extensive reorganization driven by synaptic elimination. The parallel declines in synaptic density, delta wave amplitude and cortical metabolic rate during adolescence further support this model. These late brain changes probably represent the final ontogenetic manifestation of nature's strategy for constructing nervous systems: an initial overproduction of neural elements followed by elimination. Errors in adolescent brain reorganization may cause mental illness; this could explain the typical age of onset of schizophrenia. Longitudinal studies of sleep EEG are enhancing our knowledge of adolescent brain maturation. Our longitudinal study of sleep EEG changes in adolescence showed that delta power, which may reflect frontal cortex maturation, begins its decline between ages 11 and 12 years and falls by 65% by age 17 years. In contrast, NREM theta power begins its decline much earlier. Delta and theta EEG frequencies are important to sleep theory because they behave homeostatically. Surprisingly, these brain changes are unrelated to pubertal maturation but are strongly linked to age. In addition to these (and other) maturational EEG changes, sleep schedules in adolescence change in response to a complex interaction of circadian, social and other influences. Our data demonstrate that the daytime sleepiness that emerges in adolescence is related to the decline in NREM delta as well as to altered sleep schedules. These longitudinal sleep data provide guideposts for studying cognitive and behavioral correlates of adolescent brain reorganization.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Development
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Sleep / physiology*