The spectral fingerprint of sleep problems in post-traumatic stress disorder

M. de Boer, M.J. Nijdam, R.A. Jongedijk, K.A. Bangel, M. Olff, W.F. Hofman, L.M. Talamini

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)


Study Objectives
Sleep problems are a core feature of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The aim of this study was to find a robust objective measure for the sleep disturbance in patients having PTSD.

The current study assessed EEG power across a wide frequency range and multiple scalp locations, in matched trauma-exposed individuals with and without PTSD, during rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM (NREM) sleep. In addition, a full polysomnographical evaluation was performed, including sleep staging and assessment of respiratory function, limb movements, and heart rate. The occurrence of sleep disorders was also assessed.

In patients having PTSD, NREM sleep shows a substantial loss of slow oscillation power and increased higher frequency activity compared with controls. The change is most pronounced over right-frontal sensors and correlates with insomnia. PTSD REM sleep shows a large power shift in the opposite direction, with increased slow oscillation power over occipital areas, which is strongly related to nightmare activity and to a lesser extent with insomnia. These pronounced spectral changes occur in the context of severe subjective sleep problems, increased occurrence of various sleep disorders and modest changes in sleep macrostructure.

This is the first study to show pronounced changes in EEG spectral topologies during both NREM and REM sleep in PTSD. Importantly, the observed power changes reflect the hallmarks of PTSD sleep problems: insomnia and nightmares and may thus be specific for PTSD. A spectral index derived from these data distinguishes patients from controls with high effect size, bearing promise as a candidate biomarker.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberzsz269
Number of pages9
JournalPsychotherapy and Psychosomatics
Issue number4
Early online date8 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Apr 2020


  • Polysomnography
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Quantitative electroencephalography
  • Sleep
  • Spectral analysis

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