Stages of Sleep


The first stage of NREM sleep is known as stage 1 sleep. Stage 1 sleep is a transitional phase that occurs between wakefulness and sleep, the period during which we drift off to sleep. During this time, there is a slowdown in both the rates of respiration and heartbeat. In addition, stage 1 sleep involves a marked decrease in both overall muscle tension and core body temperature.

In terms of brain wave activity, stage 1 sleep is associated with both alpha and theta waves. The early portion of stage 1 sleep produces alpha waves, which are relatively low frequency (8–13Hz), high amplitude patterns of electrical activity (waves) that become synchronized (Figure). This pattern of brain wave activity resembles that of someone who is very relaxed, yet awake. As an individual continues through stage 1 sleep, there is an increase in theta wave activity. Theta waves are even lower frequency (4–7 Hz), higher amplitude brain waves than alpha waves. It is relatively easy to wake someone from stage 1 sleep; in fact, people often report that they have not been asleep if they are awoken during stage 1 sleep.

A graph has a y-axis labeled “EEG” and an x-axis labeled “time (seconds.) Plotted along the y-axis and moving upward are the stages of sleep. First is REM, followed by Stage 3 and 4 NREM Delta, Stage 2 NREM Theta (sleep spindles; K-complexes), Stage 1 NREM Alpha, and Awake. Charted on the x axis is Time in seconds from 2–20 in 2 second intervals. Each sleep stage has associated wavelengths of varying amplitude and frequency. Relative to the others, “awake” has a very close wavelength and a medium amplitude. Stage 1 is characterized by a generally uniform wavelength and a relatively low amplitude which doubles and quickly reverts to normal every 2 seconds. Stage 2 is comprised of a similar wavelength as stage 1. It introduces the K-complex from seconds 10 through 12 which is a short burst of doubled or tripled amplitude and decreased wavelength. Stages 3 and 4 have a more uniform wave with gradually increasing amplitude. Finally, REM sleep looks much like stage 2 without the K-complex.
Brainwave activity changes dramatically across the different stages of sleep.

As we move into stage 2 sleep, the body goes into a state of deep relaxation. Theta waves still dominate the activity of the brain, but they are interrupted by brief bursts of activity known as sleep spindles (Figure). A sleep spindle is a rapid burst of higher frequency brain waves that may be important for learning and memory (Fogel & Smith, 2011; Poe, Walsh, & Bjorness, 2010). In addition, the appearance of K-complexes is often associated with stage 2 sleep. A K-complex is a very high amplitude pattern of brain activity that may in some cases occur in response to environmental stimuli. Thus, K-complexes might serve as a bridge to higher levels of arousal in response to what is going on in our environments (Halász, 1993; Steriade & Amzica, 1998).

A graph has an x-axis labeled “time” and a y-axis labeled “voltage. A line illustrates brainwaves, with two areas labeled “sleep spindle” and “k-complex”. The area labeled “sleep spindle” has decreased wavelength and moderately increased amplitude, while the area labeled “k-complex” has significantly high amplitude and longer wavelength.
Stage 2 sleep is characterized by the appearance of both sleep spindles and K-complexes.

Stage 3 and stage 4 of sleep are often referred to as deep sleep or slow-wave sleep because these stages are characterized by low frequency (up to 4 Hz), high amplitude delta waves (Figure). During this time, an individual’s heart rate and respiration slow dramatically. It is much more difficult to awaken someone from sleep during stage 3 and stage 4 than during earlier stages. Interestingly, individuals who have increased levels of alpha brain wave activity (more often associated with wakefulness and transition into stage 1 sleep) during stage 3 and stage 4 often report that they do not feel refreshed upon waking, regardless of how long they slept (Stone, Taylor, McCrae, Kalsekar, & Lichstein, 2008).

Polysonograph a shows the pattern of delta waves, which are low frequency and high amplitude. Delta waves are found mostly in stages 3 and 4 of sleep. Chart b shows brainwaves at various stages of sleep, with stages 3 and 4 highlighted.
(a) Delta waves, which are low frequency and high amplitude, characterize (b) slow-wave stage 3 and stage 4 sleep.
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