It has been demonstrated that using a device incorporated into a cap and designed to cool the brain of the wearer during sleep is a safe and effective treatment for primary insomnia.
Researchers explain that a reduction in metabolic activity in the brain's frontal cortex occurs while falling asleep and is required for restorative sleep. However, insomnia is associated with increased activity in this same brain region. One way to reduce cerebral metabolism is to use frontal cerebral thermal transfer to cool the brain, a process known as "cerebral hypothermia."
The findings of the research were presented at SLEEP 2011, the 25th Anniversary Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC (APSS), by Dr. Eric Nofzinger, professor and director of the Sleep Neuroimaging Research Program at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine reports that chronic insomnia, or symptoms that last for at least a month, affects about 10 percent of adults. Insomnia is most often a symptom of another underlying medical condition and this is especially true of environmental illnesses including myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), fibromyalgia, multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
In this study which had a crossover design, Nofzinger and co-investigator Dr. Daniel Buysse screened 110 people, enrolling 12 people with primary insomnia and 12 healthy, age-and gender-matched controls. Participants with insomnia had an average age of about 45 years, and 75 percent were women.
Participants received all-night frontal cerebral thermal transfer by wearing a soft plastic cap on their head. The cap contained tubes that were filled with circulating water. The effectiveness of varying thermal transfer intensities was investigated by implementing multiple conditions: no cooling cap, and cooling cap with either neutral, moderate or maximal cooling intensity.
Results show that the greater the cooling the greater the corresponding effect on sleep latency (time it takes to fall asleep) and sleep efficiency (time in bed spent asleep). The time that it took subjects with primary insomnia to fall asleep (13 minutes) and the percentage of time in bed that they slept (89 percent) during treatment at the maximal cooling intensity were similar to healthy controls (16 minutes and 89 percent).
"The most significant finding from this study is that we can have a beneficial impact on the sleep of insomnia patients via a safe, non-pharmaceutical mechanism that can be made widely available for home use by insomnia sufferers," said Nofzinger. "The finding of a linear dose response effect of the treatment implies a direct beneficial impact on the neurobiology of insomnia that can improve the sleep of insomnia patients. We believe this has far-ranging implications for how insomnia can be managed in the future."
Nofzinger went on to say that only around 25 percent of insomnia sufferers are satisfied with the treatments currently on offer and most would prefer not to rely on pharmaceuticals that often have significant side-effects that impact daytime functioning. He believes many are looking for natural alternatives and that commercial cooling caps based on his research may be a significant step in the right direction.