The persistence of a depressionlike sleep pattern in fully remitted depressed patients suggests that the pattern is a trait characteristic of sleep measurements. However, in the past, subjects have undergone investigation only after the onset of the disorder, and, therefore, the altered sleep pattern may merely represent a biological scar.
We polysomnographically investigated 54 healthy subjects who had no lifetime or current diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder but had at least one first-degree relative with major depression or a bipolar disorder and at least one further close relative with major depression, a bipolar disorder, or a schizophrenic disorder. Twenty unrelated control probands without a personal and family history of psychiatric disorders and 18 unrelated inpatients with major depression served as reference groups. Prior to investigation, all healthy subjects had been free of any prescription and nonprescription drug for at least 3 months. The depressed patients were free of drugs for at least 1 week. All subjects slept for 2 nights in the sleep research unit. The sleep of the second night was recorded and visually scored.
Analysis of the individual sleep cycles in these subjects revealed both a reduced amount of slow wave sleep and increased rapid eye movement density in the first sleep cycle. Discriminant analysis showed that 10 subjects (18%) had sleep patterns similar to those of depressed patients.
According to our observations, one fifth of the healthy subjects with a high genetic load for psychiatric disorders showed a conspicuous (depression-like) sleep pattern. The follow-up will determine whether this sleep pattern indeed represents a trait marker indicating vulnerability.