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University of Pittsburgh researchers report that, in a study of 12 people with primary insomnia (sleeplessness with no other known cause, such as anxiety or depression), those whose brains were kept the coolest by experimental caps slept just as deeply as members of a control group of sound sleepers.
The soft plastic caps, which have water circulating through them, cool an area of the brain behind the forehead called the frontal cortex, authors Eric Nofzinger, M.D. and Daniel Buysse, M.D., explained in research presented at the SLEEP 2011 conference in June.
This brain region, involved in reasoning and problem solving, remains more active in people with primary insomnia, studies have shown. The cooling treatment lowers its metabolism, allowing people to fall asleep more quickly and to sleep more soundly, they said. Nofzinger has applied to patent the technique.
One key finding: Sleep improved in proportion to how much a person's brain was cooled.
And the fact that researchers could see changes — the cooler the brain the better the sleep — "makes this result more convincing, as does the fact that the caps seem to normalize the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep," says James Wyatt, director of the sleep disorders research center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
Nofzinger and Buysse are respected researchers, Wyatt says, but key questions still remain, including whether patients would have to continue wearing a cooling cap every night and whether the therapy would work for other types of insomnia.
Because of the preliminary nature of the research, other important details were lacking, such as how much cooling is needed to produce sound sleep, he says. This was a small pilot study, meant to determine whether a larger trial is warranted, he says.
"As many answers as this study provides, it's certainly very early in the process of trying to take this to an eventual clinical application," Wyatt says.
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Michael Haederle is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in People, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.