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. 2012 Jan;463(1):169-76.
doi: 10.1007/s00424-011-1042-2. Epub 2011 Nov 3.

Sleep, Vigilance, and Thermosensitivity

Free PMC article

Sleep, Vigilance, and Thermosensitivity

Nico Romeijn et al. Pflugers Arch. .
Free PMC article


The regulation of sleep and wakefulness is well modeled with two underlying processes: a circadian and a homeostatic one. So far, the parameters and mechanisms of additional sleep-permissive and wake-promoting conditions have been largely overlooked. The present overview focuses on one of these conditions: the effect of skin temperature on the onset and maintenance of sleep, and alertness. Skin temperature is quite well suited to provide the brain with information on sleep-permissive and wake-promoting conditions because it changes with most if not all of them. Skin temperature changes with environmental heat and cold, but also with posture, environmental light, danger, nutritional status, pain, and stress. Its effect on the brain may thus moderate the efficacy by which the clock and homeostat manage to initiate or maintain sleep or wakefulness. The review provides a brief overview of the neuroanatomical pathways and physiological mechanisms by which skin temperature can affect the regulation of sleep and vigilance. In addition, current pitfalls and possibilities of practical applications for sleep enhancement are discussed, including the recent finding of impaired thermal comfort perception in insomniacs.


Fig. 1
Fig. 1
A schematic representation of how we envision skin temperature may affect sleep and wake propensity regulation. Both the capacity to initiate or maintain sleep or to perform/performance on a sustained attention tasks are compromised at low and high temperatures because the brain will prioritize recruitment of its resources to solve a possibly disadvantageous thermal situation. Within a relatively small comfortable thermoneutral zone, there is no need for the brain to activate thermoregulatory defense mechanisms. Within this range, small differences in skin temperature may promote the brain to reach its peaks of vigilance-promoting and sleep-promoting capacities. It requires only the assumption that the temperature at which the peaks reach their maximum differs slightly for vigilance-promoting and sleep-promoting capacities
Fig. 2
Fig. 2
Correlation between skin temperature and resting blood flow velocity (CBV) in one nailfold capillary of a healthy 37-year-old man. Notice the marked increase in CBV occurring at 34°C. Figure and legend text above are after Fagrell and Intaglietta [30], who investigated the effect of skin warming on skin blood flow. The figure illustrates that warming the skin to at least 34°C can dramatically increase skin blood flow and may theoretically improve heat loss to the environment

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