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Summary Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a recently established technique in the neurosciences that allows the non-invasive assessment, among other parameters, of the excitability of motor cortex. Up to now, its application to sleep research has been very scarce and because of technical problems it provided contrasting results . In fact delivering one single suprathreshold magnetic stimulus easily awakes subjects, or lightens their sleep. For this reason, in the present study we assessed motor thresholds (MTs) upon rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep awakenings, both in the first and in the last part of the night. Taking into account that a full re-establishment of wake regional brain activity patterns upon awakening from sleep needs up to 20–30 min, it is possible to make inferences about the neurophysiological characteristics of the different sleep stages by analyzing the variables of interest immediately after provoked awakenings. Ten female volunteers slept in the lab for four consecutive nights. During the first night the MTs were collected, following a standardized procedure: 5 min before lights off, upon stage 2 awakening (second NREM period), upon REM sleep awakening (second REM period), upon the final morning awakening (always from stage 2). Results showed that MTs increased linearly from presleep wakefulness to REM sleep awakenings, and from the latter to stage 2 awakenings. There was also a time-of-night effect on MTs upon awakening from stage 2, indicating that MTs decreased from the first to the second part of the night. The increase in corticospinal excitability across the night, which parallels the fulfillment of sleep need, is consistent with the linear decrease of auditory arousal thresholds during the night. The maximal reduction of corticospinal excitability during early NREM sleep can be related to the hyperpolarization of thalamocortical neurons, and is in line with the decreased metabolic activity of motor cortices during this sleep stage. On the contrary, the increase of MTs upon REM sleep awakenings should reflect peripheral factors. We conclude that our findings legitimate the introduction of the TMS technique as a new proper tool in sleep research.
Dipartimento di Psicologia, Università di Roma ‘‘La Sapienza’’ 2:
Dipartimento di Neurologia Clinica, Otorinolaringoiatria, Riabilitazione Sensoria, Motoria e dei Disturbi della comunicazione, Università di Roma ‘‘La Sapienza’’