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Brain Waves May Predict Who Gets Insomnia Under Stress

Stress can trigger insomnia, but a new study reveals that some stressed-out people are more vulnerable to sleepless nights than others.

This vulnerability can be detected through a person’s brain waves — those who show lower levels of brain waves known as “sleep spindles” are at greater risk of experiencing insomnia during stress.

“We found that those who had the lowest spindle activity tended to develop more disturbances in response to stress, when comparing sleep quality at the beginning of the semester and the end of the school semester,” says Thien Thanh Dang-Vu, M.D., Ph.D., from Concordia University’s Center for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology and PERFORM Center.

“We are not all equally armed when facing stress, in terms of how we can manage our sleep. Some people are more vulnerable than others.”

The deep, inner parts of the brain known as the thalamus and cortex produce electromagnetic activity during sleep. When monitored by diagnostic tools, this activity appears as patterns of squiggly lines that scientists refer to as spindles.

In a previous study, the research team discovered that greater spindle activity helps sleepers resist waking, despite noise. The new study aimed to test whether there would be a similar relationship between spindles and stress.

To determine the role of stress on sleep, the researchers analyzed the sleep cycles of 12 students from Concordia University as they went through the high-stress experience of final exams.

Measuring students’ brain waves at the beginning of the school semester, the research team found that students showing a lower amount of sleep spindles were more at risk for developing insomnia afterwards in response to the stress of the exams.

So how do we get more spindles? Are there meditation practices we can adopt? Unfortunately, it’s unknown if one can increase the amount of spindle activity in the brain, since they appear to be at least partially dependent on genetics.

But Dang-Vu, a medical doctor and neurologist at the Institut Universitaire de Gériatrie de Montréal, said exploring ways to improve spindles is another possible avenue for future research. Measuring spindle activity may also help identify people at risk of insomnia before the condition appears or gets worse.

In the meantime, we should all keep abiding by the habits already acknowledged to promote a good night’s sleep, Dang-Vu said.

“Avoid sources of stress when going to bed, preserve the bedroom environment for sleep and not for work, and avoid stimulation,” he said. “Find ways to relax before going to sleep.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Source: Concordia University

Brain Waves May Predict Who Gets Insomnia Under Stress

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Brain Waves May Predict Who Gets Insomnia Under Stress. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 16 Mar 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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