Origin and functions of intermittent transitions among sleep stages, including brief awakenings and arousals, constitute a challenge to the current homeostatic framework for sleep regulation, focusing on factors modulating sleep over large time scales. Here we propose that the complex micro-architecture characterizing sleep on scales of seconds and minutes results from intrinsic non-equilibrium critical dynamics. We investigate θ- and δ-wave dynamics in control rats and in rats where the sleep-promoting ventrolateral preoptic nucleus (VLPO) is lesioned (male Sprague-Dawley rats). We demonstrate that bursts in θ and δ cortical rhythms exhibit complex temporal organization, with long-range correlations and robust duality of power-law (θ-bursts, active phase) and exponential-like (δ-bursts, quiescent phase) duration distributions, features typical of non-equilibrium systems self-organizing at criticality. We show that such non-equilibrium behavior relates to anti-correlated coupling between θ- and δ-bursts, persists across a range of time scales, and is independent of the dominant physiologic state; indications of a basic principle in sleep regulation. Further, we find that VLPO lesions lead to a modulation of cortical dynamics resulting in altered dynamical parameters of θ- and δ-bursts and significant reduction in θ-δ coupling. Our empirical findings and model simulations demonstrate that θ-δ coupling is essential for the emerging non-equilibrium critical dynamics observed across the sleep-wake cycle, and indicate that VLPO neurons may have dual role for both sleep and arousal/brief wake activation. The uncovered critical behavior in sleep- and wake-related cortical rhythms indicates a mechanism essential for the micro-architecture of spontaneous sleep-stage and arousal transitions within a novel, non-homeostatic paradigm of sleep regulation.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT We show that the complex micro-architecture of sleep-stage/arousal transitions arises from intrinsic non-equilibrium critical dynamics, connecting the temporal organization of dominant cortical rhythms with empirical observations across scales. We link such behavior to sleep-promoting neuronal population, and demonstrate that VLPO lesion (model of insomnia) alters dynamical features of θ and δ rhythms, and leads to significant reduction in θ-δ coupling. This indicates that VLPO neurons may have dual role for both sleep and arousal/brief wake control. The reported empirical findings and modeling simulations constitute first evidences of a neurophysiological fingerprint of self-organization and criticality in sleep- and wake-related cortical rhythms; a mechanism essential for spontaneous sleep-stage and arousal transitions that lays the bases for a novel, non-homeostatic paradigm of sleep regulation.
Keywords: VLPO; brain rhythms; cortical dynamics; criticality; sleep regulation.
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