How do children fall asleep? A high-density EEG study of slow waves in the transition from wake to sleep

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IntroductionSlow waves, the hallmarks of non-rapid eye-movement (NREM) sleep, are thought to reflect maturational changes that occur in the cerebral cortex throughout childhood and adolescence. Recent work in adults has revealed evidence for two distinct synchronization processes involved in the generation of slow waves, which sequentially come into play in the transition to sleep. In order to understand how these two processes are affected by developmental changes, we compared slow waves between children and young adults in the falling asleep period.MethodsThe sleep onset period (starting 30s before end of alpha activity and ending at the first slow wave sequence) was extracted from 72 sleep onset high-density EEG recordings (128 electrodes) of 49 healthy subjects (age 8–25). Using an automatic slow wave detection algorithm, the number, amplitude and slope of slow waves were analyzed and compared between children (age 8–11) and young adults (age 20–25).ResultsSlow wave number and amplitude increased linearly in the falling asleep period in children, while in young adults, isolated high-amplitude slow waves (type I) dominated initially and numerous smaller slow waves (type II) with progressively increasing amplitude occurred later. Compared to young adults, children displayed faster increases in slow wave amplitude and number across the falling asleep period in central and posterior brain regions, respectively, and also showed larger slow waves during wakefulness immediately prior to sleep.ConclusionsChildren do not display the two temporally dissociated slow wave synchronization processes in the falling asleep period observed in adults, suggesting that maturational factors underlie the temporal segregation of these two processes. Our findings provide novel perspectives for studying how sleep-related behaviors and dreaming differ between children and adults.HighlightsIn children slow wave number and amplitude increase in parallel in the transition to sleep.In adults slow wave number and amplitude follow dissociated and intersecting courses.Children show larger and more numerous slow waves in central and posterior brain regions.The younger the child, the faster slow wave amplitude and density increase at sleep onset.Children have larger slow waves during wakefulness immediately prior to sleep.

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