Sleep system sensitization: evidence for changing roles of etiological factors in insomnia

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Sleep medicine


OBJECTIVES: To test for sensitization of the sleep system in response to insomnia development and major life stress. In addition, to evaluate the impact on depression and anxiety associated with sleep system sensitization.

METHODS: A longitudinal study with three annual assessments. The community-based sample included 262 adults with no history of insomnia or depression who developed insomnia one year after baseline (67.6% female; 44.0 ± 13.4 yr). Measures included the Ford Insomnia Response to Stress Test to assess sleep reactivity, Quick Inventory of Depressive Symptomatology, and Beck Anxiety Inventory. Insomnia classification was based on DSM-IV criteria. Sleep system sensitization was operationally defined as significant increases in sleep reactivity.

RESULTS: Sensitization of the sleep system was observed from baseline to insomnia onset at 1-yr follow-up among insomniacs with low premorbid vulnerability (p < 0.001), resulting in 68.3% of these individuals re-classified as highly sleep reactive. Major life stress was associated with greater sleep system sensitization (p = 0.02). Results showed that sleep reactivity at 2-yr follow-up remained elevated among those with low premorbid vulnerability, even after insomnia remission (p < 0.01). Finally, analyses revealed that increases in sleep reactivity predicted greater depression (p < 0.001) and anxiety (p < 0.001) at insomnia onset. The impact of sensitization on depression was stable at 2-yr follow-up (p = 0.01).

CONCLUSIONS: Evidence supports sensitization of the sleep system as a consequence of insomnia development and major life stress among individuals with low premorbid sleep reactivity. Sleep system sensitization may serve as a mechanism by which insomnia is perpetuated. Harmful effects of the sensitization process may increase risk for insomnia-related depression and anxiety.

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Adult; Anxiety; Arousal; Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale; Depression; Female; Humans; Longitudinal Studies; Male; Sleep; Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders; Stress, Psychological; Surveys and Questionnaires

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