Physiologic Effects of Sleep

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Sleep causes two major types of physiologic effects: first, effects on the nervous system itself, and second, effects on other functional systems of the body. The nervous system effects seem to be by far the more important because any person who has a transected spinal cord in the neck (and therefore has no sleep-wakefulness cycle below the transection) shows no harmful effects in the body beneath the level of transection that can be attributed directly to a sleep-wakefulness cycle.

Lack of sleep certainly does, however, affect the functions of the central nervous system. Prolonged wakefulness is often associated with progressive malfunction of the thought processes and sometimes even causes abnormal behavioral activities.

We are all familiar with the increased sluggishness of thought that occurs toward the end of a prolonged wakeful period, but in addition, a person can become irritable or even psychotic after forced wakefulness. Therefore, we can assume that sleep in multiple ways restores both normal levels of brain activity and normal "balance" among the different functions of the central nervous system. This might be likened to the "rezeroing" of electronic analog computers after prolonged use, because computers of this type gradually lose their "baseline" of operation; it is reasonable to assume that the same effect occurs in the central nervous system because overuse of some brain areas during wakefulness could easily throw these areas out of balance with the remainder of the nervous system.

We might postulate that the principal value of sleep is to restore natural balances among the neuronal centers. The specific physiologic functions of sleep remain a mystery, and they are the subject of much research.

Brain Waves

Electrical recordings from the surface of the brain or even from the outer surface of the head demonstrate that there is continuous electrical activity in the brain. Both the intensity and the patterns of this electrical activity are determined by the level of excitation of different parts of the brain resulting from sleep, wakefulness, or brain diseases such as epilepsy or even psychoses. The undulations in the recorded electrical potentials, shown in Figure 59-1, are called brain waves, and the entire record is called an EEG (electroencephalogram).

The intensities of brain waves recorded from the surface of the scalp range from 0 to 200 microvolts, and their frequencies range from once every few seconds to 50 or more per second. The character of the waves is dependent on the degree of activity in respective parts of the cerebral cortex, and the waves change markedly between the states of wakefulness and sleep and coma.

Much of the time, the brain waves are irregular, and no specific pattern can be discerned in the EEG. At other times, distinct patterns do appear, some of which are characteristic of specific abnormalities of the brain such as epilepsy, which is discussed later.

Figure 59-1

Eyes open Eyes closed

Figure 59-2

Different types of brain waves in the normal electroencephalogram.

In normal healthy people, most waves in the EEG can be classified as alpha, beta, theta, and delta waves, which are shown in Figure 59-1.

Alpha waves are rhythmical waves that occur at frequencies between 8 and 13 cycles per second and are found in the EEGs of almost all normal adult people when they are awake and in a quiet, resting state of cerebration.These waves occur most intensely in the occipital region but can also be recorded from the parietal and frontal regions of the scalp. Their voltage usually is about 50 microvolts. During deep sleep, the alpha waves disappear.

When the awake person's attention is directed to some specific type of mental activity, the alpha waves are replaced by asynchronous, higher-frequency but lower-voltage beta waves. Figure 59-2 shows the effect on the alpha waves of simply opening the eyes in bright light and then closing the eyes. Note that the visual sensations cause immediate cessation of the alpha waves and that these are replaced by low-voltage, asynchronous beta waves.

Beta waves occur at frequencies greater than 14 cycles per second and as high as 80 cycles per second. They are recorded mainly from the parietal and frontal regions during specific activation of these parts of the brain.

Theta waves have frequencies between 4 and 7 cycles per second. They occur normally in the parietal and temporal regions in children, but they also occur during emotional stress in some adults, particularly during disappointment and frustration. Theta waves also occur in many brain disorders, often in degenerative brain states.

Delta waves include all the waves of the EEG with frequencies less than 3.5 cycles per second, and they often have voltages two to four times greater than most other types of brain waves. They occur in very deep sleep, in infancy, and in serious organic brain disease. They also occur in the cortex of animals that have had subcortical transections separating the cerebral cortex from the thalamus. Therefore, delta waves can occur strictly in the cortex independent of activities in lower regions of the brain.

Replacement of the alpha rhythm by an asynchronous, low-voltage beta rhythm when the eyes are opened.

Origin of Brain Waves

The discharge of a single neuron or single nerve fiber in the brain can never be recorded from the surface of the head. Instead, many thousands or even millions of neurons or fibers must fire synchronously; only then will the potentials from the individual neurons or fibers summate enough to be recorded all the way through the skull. Thus, the intensity of the brain waves from the scalp is determined mainly by the numbers of neurons and fibers that fire in synchrony with one another, not by the total level of electrical activity in the brain. In fact, strong nonsynchronous nerve signals often nullify one another in the recorded brain waves because of opposing polarities. This is demonstrated in Figure 59-2, which shows, when the eyes were closed, synchronous discharge of many neurons in the cerebral cortex at a frequency of about 12 per second, thus causing alpha waves. Then, when the eyes were opened, the activity of the brain increased greatly, but synchronization of the signals became so little that the brain waves mainly nullified one another, and the resultant effect was very low voltage waves of generally high but irregular frequency, the beta waves.

Origin of Alpha Waves. Alpha waves will not occur in the cerebral cortex without cortical connections with the thalamus. Conversely, stimulation in the nonspecific layer of reticular nuclei that surround the thalamus or in "diffuse" nuclei deep inside the thalamus often sets up electrical waves in the thalamocortical system at a frequency between 8 and 13 per second, which is the natural frequency of the alpha waves. Therefore, it is believed that the alpha waves result from spontaneous feedback oscillation in this diffuse thalamocortical system, possibly including the reticular activating system in the brain stem as well. This oscillation presumably causes both the periodicity of the alpha waves and the synchronous activation of literally millions of cortical neurons during each wave.

Origin of Delta Waves. Transection of the fiber tracts from the thalamus to the cerebral cortex, which blocks thal-amic activation of the cortex and thereby eliminates the alpha waves, nevertheless does not block delta waves in the cortex. This indicates that some synchronizing mechanism can occur in the cortical neuronal system by itself—mainly independent of lower structures in the brain—to cause the delta waves.

Delta waves also occur during deep slow-wave sleep; this suggests that the cortex then is mainly released

Figure 59-3

Effect of varying degrees of cerebral activity on the basic rhythm of the electroencephalogram. (Redrawn from Gibbs FA, Gibbs EL: Atlas of Electroencephalogra-phy, 2nd ed, Vol I: Methodology and Controls. ® 1974. Reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Upper Saddle River, NJ.)


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