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Brain waves predict our risk for insomnia

A new Concordia University study sheds light on the causes of poor sleep patterns

A recent Concordia study examined the sleep cycles of 12 Concordia students as they went through the nerve-racking experience of finals. A recent Concordia study examined the sleep cycles of 12 Concordia students as they went through the nerve-racking experience of finals. | Photos by Concordia University

There may not yet be a cure for insomnia, but Concordia researchers are a step closer to predicting who is most likely to suffer from it — just in time for World Sleep Day on March 13.

In their study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, professor Thien Thanh Dang-Vu, from Concordia’s Center for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology and PERFORM Center, and psychology professor Jean-Philippe Gouin, explore the impact of stress on sleep. Although researchers already know that stressful events can trigger insomnia, the experiment reveals why some people are more vulnerable than others to developing the condition.

Twelve Concordia students had their sleep cycles examined at the PERFORM Center sleep laboratory. Measuring students’ brain waves at the beginning of the school semester, the research team found that students showing a lower amount of a particular pattern of brain waves called sleep spindles were more at risk for developing insomnia afterwards in response to the stress of the exams. 

Assistant professor Thien Thanh Dang-Vu Assistant professor Thien Thanh Dang-Vu

The brain — specifically the parts of the brain called the thalamus and cortex — produces electrical activities during sleep. On the monitors of measurement equipment, one of these activities appears as patterns of squiggly lines that scientists refer to as spindles.

In a previous experiment, Dang-Vu and his colleagues discovered that greater spindle activity helps sleepers resist waking, despite noise. The new study aimed to test whether there would be a similar relationship between spindles and stress.

The hypothesis proved true. “We found that those who had the lowest spindle activity at the beginning of the semester tended to develop more sleep disturbances at the end of the school semester coinciding with the period of preparations for final examinations,” Dang-Vu says.

Partners in research: Thanh Dang-Vu receives research support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Fonds de Recherche du Québec – Santé (FRQ-S), the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), the Sleep Research Society Foundation (SRSF), the Fonds Québécois de Recherche sur le Vieillissement (RQRV), the Institut Universitaire de Gériatrie de Montréal, and Concordia University. 


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