Wide awake

A new way to examine EEG signals could make it easier to monitor states of consciousness.
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Three frontal scalp EEG electrodes record brain activity during a night of sleep; in white, the time-resolved spectral slope tracking the underlying changes in arousal level. Lendner et al. (CC BY 4.0)

Electroencephalogram (EEG for short) is a widespread technique that helps to monitor the electrical activity of the brain. In particular, it can be used to examine, recognize and compare different states of brain consciousness such as sleep, wakefulness or general anesthesia. Yet, during rapid eye movement sleep (the sleep phase in which dreaming occurs), the electrical activity of the brain is similar to the one recorded during wakefulness, making it difficult to distinguish these states based on EEG alone.

EEG records brain activity in the shape of rhythmic waves whose frequency, shape and amplitude vary depending on the state of consciousness. In the EEG signal from the human brain, the higher frequency waves are weaker than the low-frequency waves: a measure known as spectral slope reflects the degree of this difference in the signal strength. Previous research suggests that spectral slope can be used to distinguish wakefulness from anesthesia and non-REM sleep. Here, Lendner et al. explored whether certain elements of the spectral slope could also discern wakefulness from all states of reduced arousal.

EEG readings were taken from patients and volunteers who were awake, asleep or under anesthesia, using electrodes placed either on the scalp or into the brain. Lendner et al. found that the spectral slope could distinguish wakefulness from anesthesia, deep non-REM and REM sleep. The changes in the spectral slope during sleep could accurately track the degree of arousal with great temporal precision and across a wide range of time scales.

This method means that states of consciousness can be spotted just from a scalp EEG. In the future, this approach could be embedded into the techniques used for monitoring sleep or anesthesia during operations; it could also be harnessed to monitor other low-response states, such as comas.