Sleep in man is divided in two main phases : non-REM sleep, which occupies most of our early sleep night, and REM sleep, during which our dreams prevail. Non-REM sleep is usually considered as a compensatory ‘resting’ state for the brain, following the intense waking brain activity. Indeed, previous brain imaging studies showed that the brain was less active during periods of non-REM sleep as compared to periods of wakefulness.

Although not rejecting this concept, researchers from the Cyclotron Research Centre of the University of Liège in Belgium and from the Department of Neurology of Liege University Hospital demonstrate that, even during its deepest stages (also called ‘slow-wave-sleep’), non-REM sleep should not be viewed as a stage of constant and continuous brain activity decrease, but is also characterized by transient and recurrent activity increases in specific brain areas.


In a study published recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences(PNAS), the research team led by Dr Thanh Dang-Vu and Pr Pierre Maquet shows that brain activity during these sleep stages is actually profoundly influenced by spontaneous slow rhythms (also called ‘slow oscillations’) which organize neuronal functioning during non-REM sleep.

By using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) combined with electroencephalography (EEG), researchers have evidenced that these slow oscillations are associated with brain activity increases during non-REM sleep (see image, side panels), therefore discarding the concept of brain ‘quiescence’ that prevailed for a long time in the characterization of non-REM sleep. Besides, these activity increases are located in specific brain areas, including the inferior frontal gyrus, the parahippocampal gyrus, the precuneus and the posterior cingulate cortex, as well as the brainstem and cerebellum (see image, central panels).

These results improve our understanding of non-REM sleep mechanisms. On the one hand, they demonstrate that non-REM sleep is a stage of brain activation organized by the slow oscillations. On the other hand, they allow the identification of brain areas potentially involved in the generation of these oscillations, which are a hallmark of brain functioning during non-REM sleep.

Moreover, by showing the activation of areas involved in the processing of memory traces such as para-hippocampal areas, the study might point to the potential functions of sleep, in particular the increasingly well-defined role of sleep in memory consolidation.

Finally, the activation of areas such as the brainstem, usually associated with arousal and waking, might reveal these oscillations of non-REM sleep as ‘micro-wake’ periods allowing the brain to fulfil crucial and active functions, even during the deepest stages of sleep.

This research was supported by the National Fund for Scientific Research (Belgium), the University of Liège and the Queen Elisabeth Medical Foundation.

Article: "Spontaneous Neural Activity during Human Slow Wave Sleep", by Dang-Vu TT, Schabus M, Desseilles M, Albouy G, Boly M, Darsaud A, Gais S,Rauchs G, Sterpenich V, Vandewalle G, Carrier J, Moonen G, Balteau E, Degueldre C, Luxen A, Phillips C, Maquet P. PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 150(39), 2008, p. 15160-5.