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Reconsidering sleep perception in insomnia

Publication year 2023
Published in Journal of Sleep Research

So-called ‘sleep misperception’ refers to a phenomenon in which individuals have the impression of sleeping little or not at all despite normal objective measures of sleep. It is unknown whether this subjective-objective mismatch truly reflects an abnormal perception of sleep, or whether it results from the inability of standard sleep recording techniques to capture ‘wake-like’ brain activity patterns that could account for feeling awake during sleep. Here, we systematically reviewed studies reporting sleep macro- and microstructural, metabolic, and mental correlates of sleep (mis)perception. Our findings suggest that most individuals tend to accurately estimate their sleep duration measured with polysomnography (PSG). In good sleepers, feeling awake during sleep is the rule at sleep onset, remains frequent in the first non-rapid eye movement sleep cycle and almost never occurs in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. In contrast, there are patients with insomnia who consistently underestimate their sleep duration, regardless of how long they sleep. Unlike good sleepers, they continue to feel awake after the first sleep cycle and importantly, during REM sleep. Their mental activity during sleep is also more thought-like. Initial studies based on standard PSG parameters largely failed to show consistent differences in sleep macrostructure between these patients and controls. However, recent studies assessing sleep with more refined techniques have revealed that these patients show metabolic and microstructural electroencephalography changes that likely reflect a shift towards greater cortical activation during sleep and correlate with feeling awake. We discuss the significance of these correlates and conclude with open questions and possible ways to address them.

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