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Free Content The alteration of human sleep and circadian rhythms during spaceflight

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Numerous anecdotes in the past suggest the concept that sleep disturbances in astronauts occur more frequently during spaceflight than on ground. Such disturbances may be caused in part by exogenous factors, but also an altered physiological state under microgravity may add to reducing sleep quality in a spacecraft. The present investigation aims at a better understanding of possible sleep disturbances under microgravity. For the first time, experiments were conducted in which sleep and circadian regulation could be simultaneously assessed in space. Four astronauts took part in this study aboard the Russian MIR station. Sleep was recorded polygraphically on tape together with body temperature. For a comparison, the same parameters were measured during baseline periods preceding the flights. The circadian phase of body temperature was found to be delayed by about 2 h in space compared with baseline data. A free-run was not observed during the first 30 d in space. Sleep was shorter and more disturbed than on earth. In addition, the structure of sleep was significantly altered. In space, the latency to the first REM episode was shorter, and slow-wave sleep was redistributed from the first to the second sleep cycle. Several mechanisms may be responsible for these alterations in sleep regulation and circadian phase. Most likely, altered circadian zeitgebers on MIR and a deficiency in the process S of Borbély's sleep model cause the observed findings. The change in process S may be related to changes in physical activity as a result of weightlessness.

Keywords: circadian rhythms; sleep regulation; spaceflight

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine, Cologne, Germany, 2: Institute for Biomedical Problems, Moscow, Russia, 3: Psychiatric Clinic, University of Regensburg, Germany

Publication date: January 1, 1997


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