If you're one of the 10% of American adults afflicted by insomnia, you might want to chill out -- not using a pill but a cooling cap.
A study shows that caps that circulate water over the prefrontal cortex help insomniacs fall asleep as quickly and stay asleep as long as non-insomniacs.
The soft plastic cap contains tubes filled with water that circulate at different speeds.
Researchers presented their findings last summer at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine's Sleep 2011 conference. The study had an extremely small sample size: 12. Nonetheless, the cooling cap had a significant success rate -- 75% -- compared to current treatments such as hypnosis and sleeping pills, which help only about one in four insomniacs.
The subjects wearing the cap took 13 minutes to fall asleep as opposed to the 16 minutes needed by the healthy sleepers, and both groups slept soundly for 89% of the time they were in bed.
Insomnia essentially stems from hyperarousal, says Eric A. Nofzinger, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine psychiatrist who worked on the study. The prefrontal cortex, which lies just behind the forehead, is responsible for executive functions in the brain and the expression of personality. It also creates the stress that often keeps insomniacs from falling asleep up or wakes in them in the middle of the night.
The cooling cap caused the brain to experience cerebral hypothermia, which cooled it, effectively reducing this "chatter" in the brain, allowing the subject to sleep.
Nofzinger told Scientific American that wearing the cap was "a soothing, massagelike experience. Imagine your grandmother putting a cold washcloth on your forehead." While more research is needed to confirm the results, Nofzinger hopes that the cap could become a good non-pharmaceutical method for helping insomniacs as well as patients with other health issues involving the prefrontal cortex, such as anxiety and mood disorders.