BACKGROUND: Childhood generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), characterized by uncontrollable worry, is associated with long-term psychopathology risk, yet understanding of developmental trajectories is limited. Despite common complaints about sleep, 'macro' sleep abnormalities have not been identified. Emerging findings suggest micro-architectural features of sleep, including sleep spindles, differentiate various psychiatric populations. The current study investigated sleep spindle density during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep among youth with GAD and healthy controls, including relationships with anxiety, worry, global functioning, and subjective sleep quality.
METHODS: 58 pre-pubertal children, n = 26 with GAD and n = 32 matched healthy controls, aged 7-11 years (M = 8.86, SD=1.47), completed diagnostic assessments and a week of actigraphy monitoring prior to a night of polysomnography (PSG) either at home or in a sleep laboratory. NREM spindle activity was detected in frontal and central regions.
RESULTS: Sleep spindle activity did not differ based on diagnostic group or sex. Sleep spindles were unassociated with anxiety and sleep quality but showed a significant positive association with worry in all youth. Among youth with GAD, global functioning was negatively associated with spindle density in frontal regions during NREM stage 3. Spindle density was significantly greater during in-lab compared to at-home PSG.
LIMITATIONS: The small sample size and reliance on only one night of PSG necessitate additional studies.
CONCLUSIONS: The identified link between spindle activity and worry in pre-pubertal children highlights a need for investigations on transdiagnostic features of child psychopathology rather than specific disorders. Longitudinal studies are needed to explore spindle characteristics and affective risk across development.