An electrophysiological marker of arousal level in humans

Elife. 2020 Jul 28:9:e55092. doi: 10.7554/eLife.55092.


Deep non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM) and general anesthesia with propofol are prominent states of reduced arousal linked to the occurrence of synchronized oscillations in the electroencephalogram (EEG). Although rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is also associated with diminished arousal levels, it is characterized by a desynchronized, 'wake-like' EEG. This observation implies that reduced arousal states are not necessarily only defined by synchronous oscillatory activity. Using intracranial and surface EEG recordings in four independent data sets, we demonstrate that the 1/f spectral slope of the electrophysiological power spectrum, which reflects the non-oscillatory, scale-free component of neural activity, delineates wakefulness from propofol anesthesia, NREM and REM sleep. Critically, the spectral slope discriminates wakefulness from REM sleep solely based on the neurophysiological brain state. Taken together, our findings describe a common electrophysiological marker that tracks states of reduced arousal, including different sleep stages as well as anesthesia in humans.

Keywords: 1/f dynamics; anesthesia; arousal; human; intracranial electrophysiology; neuroscience; sleep.

Plain language summary

Electroencephalogram (EEG for short) is a widespread technique that helps to monitor the electrical activity of the brain. In particular, it can be used to examine, recognize and compare different states of brain consciousness such as sleep, wakefulness or general anesthesia. Yet, during rapid eye movement sleep (the sleep phase in which dreaming occurs), the electrical activity of the brain is similar to the one recorded during wakefulness, making it difficult to distinguish these states based on EEG alone. EEG records brain activity in the shape of rhythmic waves whose frequency, shape and amplitude vary depending on the state of consciousness. In the EEG signal from the human brain, the higher frequency waves are weaker than the low-frequency waves: a measure known as spectral slope reflects the degree of this difference in the signal strength. Previous research suggests that spectral slope can be used to distinguish wakefulness from anesthesia and non-REM sleep. Here, Lendner et al. explored whether certain elements of the spectral slope could also discern wakefulness from all states of reduced arousal. EEG readings were taken from patients and volunteers who were awake, asleep or under anesthesia, using electrodes placed either on the scalp or into the brain. Lendner et al. found that the spectral slope could distinguish wakefulness from anesthesia, deep non-REM and REM sleep. The changes in the spectral slope during sleep could accurately track the degree of arousal with great temporal precision and across a wide range of time scales. This method means that states of consciousness can be spotted just from a scalp EEG. In the future, this approach could be embedded into the techniques used for monitoring sleep or anesthesia during operations; it could also be harnessed to monitor other low-response states, such as comas.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Anesthesia*
  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Propofol*
  • Sleep Stages / physiology*
  • Sleep, REM / physiology*


  • Propofol