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Scientists Unravel Secrets of Sound Sleep
Date:8/9/2010

By Melissa Lee Phillips
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Aug. 9 (HealthDay News) -- Ever wonder how some people can sleep through thunderstorms and traffic noise, while others wake up at the slightest sound? Differences in people's brain rhythms during sleep may hold the answer, scientists say.

While treatments based on the findings remain a long ways off, "by knowing this information, we will better understand what can be done to enhance natural sleep," said study senior author Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, chief of the division of sleep medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School.

Reporting in the Aug. 10 issue of Current Biology, Ellenbogen and his colleagues studied how sensitivity to noise during sleep is associated with a type of brain activity called sleep "spindles" -- bursts of fast brain rhythms that punctuate the otherwise slow-wave patterns characteristic of sleep.

These spindle rhythms are generated by a structure in the brain called the thalamus, which is responsible for relaying sensory information from the outside world to other parts of the brain. It's thought that the thalamus might generate these sleep spindles as a way to prevent sensory input (such as loud noise) from reaching the sleeping brain.

To see if spindles might shield the brain from sound in the environment, the researchers first measured spindle production in the brains of 12 healthy adult volunteers during a quiet night of sleep. On the next two nights, they evaluated the volunteers' sleep behavior in the presence of noises like road and air traffic or a ringing telephone.

The researchers found that people with higher rates of spindle rhythms were consistently less likely to awake in response to these noises.

"Spindles have previously been associated with suppression of incoming stimuli during sleep, so the results are logical," said one expert, Torb
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