Alertness, mood and performance rhythm disturbances associated with circadian sleep disorders in the blind

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Blind people report disturbances in alertness, mood and performance. In laboratory studies, these waking functions can only be maintained when the wake-dependent deterioration is opposed by appropriately-timed endogenous circadian rhythms. We aimed to quantify whether variations in waking function experienced by blind people living in society were dependent on the phase relationship between the sleep-wake cycle and the circadian pacemaker. The time course of alertness, mood and performance was assessed in 52 blind subjects with and without circadian rhythm disorders every 2 h for 2 days per week for 4 weeks. Sleep-wake timing and circadian phase were assessed from diaries and weekly measurements of urinary 6-sulphatoxymelatonin rhythms, respectively. In those subjects who woke at either a normal circadian phase (n=26) or abnormally early (n=5), alertness, mood and performance deteriorated significantly with increased time awake (P<0.05). In 17 non-entrained (‘free-running’) subjects, waking function varied significantly with circadian phase such that subjects rated themselves most sleepy (P=0.03) and most miserable (P=0.02) when they were awake during the time of peak melatonin production. The internal phase relationship between sleep-wake behaviour and the circadian melatonin rhythm in entrained subjects contributed to predictable differences in the daily profile of alertness, mood and performance. Disruption of this phase relationship in non-entrained blind individuals with circadian rhythm sleep disorders resulted in impaired waking function during the day equivalent to that usually only experienced when awake during the night. Treatment for circadian rhythm disorders should be targeted in normalizing these phase relationships.

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