Sleep stage

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A Sleep Stage is one of five parts or stages of the sleep cycle based on the type of brain activity that occurs during the stage. In mammals and birds, sleep is divided into two broad types: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM or non-REM) sleep. Each type has a distinct set of associated physiological, neurological, and psychological features. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) further divides NREM into three stages: N1, N2, and N3, the last of which is also called delta sleep or slow-wave sleep (SWS).

Sleep proceeds in cycles of REM and NREM, the order normally being N1 → N2 → N3 → N2 → REM. There is a greater amount of deep sleep (stage N3) earlier in the sleep cycle, while the proportion of REM sleep increases later in the sleep cycle and just before natural awakening.

The stages of sleep were first described in 1937 by Alfred Lee Loomis and his co-workers, who separated the different electroencephalography (EEG) features of sleep into five levels (A to E), which represented the spectrum from wakefulness to deep sleep. In 1953, REM sleep was discovered as distinct, and thus William Dement and Nathaniel Kleitman reclassified sleep into four NREM stages and REM. The staging criteria were standardized in 1968 by Allan Rechtschaffen and Anthony Kales in the "R&K sleep scoring manual." In the R&K standard, NREM sleep was divided into four stages, with slow-wave sleep comprising stages 3 and 4. In stage 3, delta waves made up less than 50% of the total wave patterns, while they made up more than 50% in stage 4. Furthermore, REM sleep was sometimes referred to as stage 5.

In 2004, the AASM commissioned the AASM Visual Scoring Task Force to review the R&K scoring system. The review resulted in several changes, the most significant being the combination of stages 3 and 4 into Stage N3. The revised scoring was published in 2007 as The AASM Manual for the Scoring of Sleep and Associated Events. Arousals and respiratory, cardiac, and movement events were also added.

Sleep stages and other characteristics of sleep are commonly assessed by polysomnography in a specialized sleep laboratory. Measurements taken include EEG of brain waves, electrooculography (EOG) of eye movements, and electromyography (EMG) of skeletal muscle activity. In humans, each sleep cycle lasts from 90 to 110 minutes on average, and each stage may have a distinct physiological function. This can result in sleep that exhibits loss of consciousness but does not fulfil its physiological functions (i.e., one may still feel tired after apparently sufficient sleep).

Scientific studies on sleep have shown that sleep stage at awakening is an important factor in amplifying sleep inertia. Alarm clocks involving sleep stage monitoring appeared on the market in 2005. Using sensing technologies such as EEG electrodes or accelerometers, these alarm clocks are supposed to wake people only from light sleep.

NREM sleep

(Non-rapid eye movement sleep)

According to the 2007 AASM standards, NREM consists of three stages. There is relatively little dreaming in NREM.

Stage N1 refers to the transition of the brain from alpha waves having a frequency of 8–13 Hz (common in the awake state) to theta waves having a frequency of 4–7 Hz. This stage is sometimes referred to as somnolence or drowsy sleep. Sudden twitches and hypnic jerks, also known as positive myoclonus, may be associated with the onset of sleep during N1. Some people may also experience hypnagogic hallucinations during this stage. During N1, the subject loses some muscle tone and most conscious awareness of the external environment.

Stage N2 is characterized by sleep spindles ranging from 11 to 16 Hz (most commonly 12–14 Hz) and K-complexes. During this stage, muscular activity as measured by EMG decreases, and conscious awareness of the external environment disappears. This stage occupies 45–55% of total sleep in adults.

Stage N3 (deep or slow-wave sleep) is characterized by the presence of a minimum of 20% delta waves ranging from 0.5–2 Hz and having a peak-to-peak amplitude >75 μV. (EEG standards define delta waves to be from 0 to 4 Hz, but sleep standards in both the original R&K, as well as the new 2007 AASM guidelines have a range of 0.5–2 Hz.) This is the stage in which parasomnias such as night terrors, nocturnal enuresis, sleepwalking, and somniloquy occur. Many illustrations and descriptions still show a stage N3 with 20–50% delta waves and a stage N4 with greater than 50% delta waves; these have been combined as stage N3.

For more information, go to Non-rapid eye movement sleep.

REM sleep

(Rapid eye movement sleep)

Rapid eye movement sleep, or REM sleep, accounts for 20–25% of total sleep time in most human adults. The criteria for REM sleep include rapid eye movements as well as a rapid low-voltage EEG. Most memorable dreaming occurs in this stage. At least in mammals, a descending muscular atonia is seen. Such paralysis may be necessary to protect organisms from self-damage through physically acting out scenes from the often-vivid dreams that occur during this stage.

For more information, go to Rapid eye movement sleep.


Sleep timing is controlled by the circadian clock, sleep-wake homeostasis, and in humans, within certain bounds, willed behavior. The circadian clock—an inner timekeeping, temperature-fluctuating, enzyme-controlling device—works in tandem with adenosine, a neurotransmitter that inhibits many of the bodily processes associated with wakefulness. Adenosine is created over the course of the day; high levels of adenosine lead to sleepiness. In diurnal animals, sleepiness occurs as the circadian element causes the release of the hormone melatonin and a gradual decrease in core body temperature. The timing is affected by one's chronotype. It is the circadian rhythm that determines the ideal timing of a correctly structured and restorative sleep episode.

Homeostatic sleep propensity (the need for sleep as a function of the amount of time elapsed since the last adequate sleep episode) must be balanced against the circadian element for satisfactory sleep. Along with corresponding messages from the circadian clock, this tells the body it needs to sleep. Sleep offset (awakening) is primarily determined by circadian rhythm. A person who regularly awakens at an early hour will generally not be able to sleep much later than his or her normal waking time, even if moderately sleep-deprived.