Autonomic dysregulation and sleep homeostasis in insomnia

Sleep. 2021 Jun 11;44(6):zsaa274. doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsaa274.


Study objectives: Insomnia is common in older adults, and is associated with poor health, including cognitive impairment and cardio-metabolic disease. Although the mechanisms linking insomnia with these comorbidities remain unclear, age-related changes in sleep and autonomic nervous system (ANS) regulation might represent a shared mechanistic pathway. In this study, we assessed the relationship between ANS activity with indices of objective and subjective sleep quality in older adults with insomnia.

Methods: Forty-three adults with chronic insomnia and 16 age-matched healthy sleeper controls were studied. Subjective sleep quality was assessed using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI), objective sleep quality by electroencephalogram spectral components derived from polysomnography, and ANS activity by measuring 24-h plasma cortisol and norepinephrine (NE).

Results: Sleep cycle analysis displayed lower slow oscillatory (SO: 0.5-1.25 Hz) activity in the first cycle in insomnia compared to controls. In insomnia, 24-h cortisol levels were higher and 24-h NE levels were lower than controls. In controls, but not in insomnia, there was a significant interaction between NE level during wake and SO activity levels across the sleep cycles, such that in controls but not in insomnia, NE level during wake was positively associated with the amount of SO activity in the first cycle. In insomnia, lower 24-h NE level and SO activity in the first sleep cycle were associated with poorer subjective sleep quality.

Conclusion: Dysregulation of autonomic activity may be an underlying mechanism that links objective and subjective measures of sleep quality in older adults with insomnia, and potentially contribute to adverse health outcomes.

Keywords: insomnia; noradrenergic system; sleep homeostasis; sleep slow oscillations.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Autonomic Nervous System
  • Homeostasis
  • Humans
  • Polysomnography
  • Sleep
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders* / complications