Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorders

Continuum (Minneap Minn). 2017 Aug;23(4, Sleep Neurology):1051-1063. doi: 10.1212/CON.0000000000000499.


Purpose of review: The endogenous circadian rhythms are one of the cardinal processes that control sleep. They are self-sustaining biological rhythms with a periodicity of approximately 24 hours that may be entrained by external zeitgebers (German for time givers), such as light, exercise, and meal times. This article discusses the physiology of the circadian rhythms, their relationship to neurologic disease, and the presentation and treatment of circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders.

Recent findings: Classic examples of circadian rhythms include cortisol and melatonin secretion, body temperature, and urine volume. More recently, the impact of circadian rhythm on several neurologic disorders has been investigated, such as the timing of occurrence of epileptic seizures as well as neurobehavioral functioning in dementia. Further updates include a more in-depth understanding of the symptoms, consequences, and treatment of circadian sleep-wake disorders, which may occur because of extrinsic misalignment with clock time or because of intrinsic dysfunction of the brain. An example of extrinsic misalignment occurs with jet lag during transmeridian travel or with intrinsic circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders such as advanced or delayed sleep-wake phase disorders. In advanced sleep-wake phase disorder, which is most common in elderly individuals, sleep onset and morning arousal are undesirably early, leading to impaired evening function with excessive sleepiness and sleep-maintenance insomnia with early morning awakening. By contrast, delayed sleep-wake phase disorder is characterized by an inability to initiate sleep before the early morning hours, with subsequent delayed rise time, leading to clinical symptoms of severe sleep-onset insomnia coupled with excessive daytime sleepiness in the morning hours, as patients are unable to "sleep in" to attain sufficient sleep quantity. Irregular sleep-wake rhythm disorder is misentrainment with patches of brief sleep and wakefulness spread throughout the day, leading to unstable sleep and waking behavioral patterns and an entirely idiosyncratic sleep-wake schedule.

Summary: Familiarity with these major circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorder phenotypes and their overlap with other neurologic disorders is essential for the neurologist so that clinicians may intervene and improve patient functioning and quality of life.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Quality of Life
  • Sleep / physiology*
  • Sleep Disorders, Circadian Rhythm / physiopathology
  • Sleep Disorders, Circadian Rhythm / therapy*
  • Sleep Wake Disorders / therapy*
  • Wakefulness / physiology