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Sleep Disorders

22 January 2020

Brain waves offer insight into sleep struggles that accompany autism

A study found that the brain waves of children with autism are, on average, 25% weaker than those of children without autism.

Shallower-than-normal brain waves may play a role in serious sleep problems in children with autism, a new study suggests.

Previous research has shown that between 40% and 80% of children with autism have sleep issues, such as trouble falling asleep or waking frequently during the night and rising early. These problems can be significant challenges for the children and their families.

Shallow and superficial sleep

Identifying the causes of these sleep disturbances is an important step in finding ways to ease them, according to researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.

For the study, the researchers recorded the brain activity of 29 children with autism and 23 children without autism during an entire night's sleep.

"For the first time, we found that children with more serious sleep issues showed brain activity that indicated more shallow and superficial sleep," said study leader Ilan Dinstein, head of the National Autism Research Center of Israel.

Normal sleep begins with periods of deep sleep marked by high amplitude slow brain waves, the study authors explained in a university news release.

Promoting deeper sleep

But this study found that the brain waves of children with autism are, on average, 25% weaker (shallower) than those of children without autism.

That indicates that children with autism have trouble entering deep sleep, the most crucial aspect of achieving rest and rejuvenation, according to the report published recently in the journal Sleep.

The next step is to determine ways to promote deeper sleep and larger brain waves in children with autism, the researchers said.

This could include increased physical activity, behavioural therapy and drug treatment, such as medical cannabis, the team suggested.

Image credit: iStock

 

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Sleep disorders expert

Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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